Coffee Is Giving You An Anxiety Problem
The Debrief: Panic attacks, anxiety, sweating... coffee could be causing it all
A couple of weekends ago, I had a panic attack that lasted a whole day. Shortly after breakfast, my heart started racing and my chest tightened. Then came dizziness, nausea, sweating, more nausea, creeping dread – a veritable variety pack of all your favourite anxiety symptoms.
Being an old hand at the business, I self-medicated with white carbohydrates and patiently, shakily rode out the storm. But it wasn’t until the next morning, casually reading the back of our new pack of Lavazza, that I suddenly clocked the reason I’d lost a day to feeling, as Kenneth from 30 Rock would put it, ‘like my heart was trying to hug my brain’. I’d accidentally had a quadruple espresso for breakfast.
I’ve done it before – and as sure as eggs is brunch, I’ll do it again, because I’m a paid-up member of the ‘but first: coffee!’ cult. All those Pinterest platitudes about coffee being the magical petrol on which all the sassiest ladies run? I drink them down like warm cortado (not hot, it impairs the milk’s natural sweetness). Research out this week has shown sales of instant coffee are falling, with only 8% of people in their early 20s now drinking the stir-and-go stuff, presumably because we’re all being gourmet wankers about it.
But while our tastes get stronger, experts have known about caffeine’s stress potential for a while. In 1974 the researcher John Greden published a paper called Anxiety or Caffeinism: A Diagnostic Dilemma, brimming with evidence of the fact that caffeine, 'can produce pharmacological actions that cause symptoms essentially indistinguishable from those of anxiety neuroses.' Or: pretty much leave you tripping balls.
And in May this year, EU food safety experts warned that over 400mg of caffeine a day could have adverse health effects. That’s around five espressos, a single Starbucks venti bucket, or two and a half double-shot flat whites from that place on the corner with the neon sign and the hot barista.
Meanwhile a 200ml filter coffee has around 90mg, a small can of Red Bull has 80mg, a Diet Coke has 45mg and even 50g of dark chocolate delivers 25mg of chemical buzz. Tea has between 14mg and 50mg a cup, depending on how long you brew it. Chances are you could be tipping into the danger zone without noticing, especially if you work in the kind of office where people use hot beverages and corner shop runs as emotional currency.
My accidental espresso binge was still under the EU’s limit, though. So why can some people neck a whole cafetiere and function fine, while others are blazing after half a Frappuccino?
'This actually has to do with a person's genetics,' explains caffeine expert Ted Kallmyer from the site Caffeine Informer. 'There are two genetic variations of a person's adenosine receptor that makes them more susceptible to caffeine-induced anxiety.'
There’s no set quantity that will trigger anxiety in the anxious, either – it’s a combination of nature and nurture. Peter Rogers, Professor of Biological Psychology at the University of Bristol, tells me: 'Infrequent consumers are more vulnerable to getting anxious after caffeine, and that's also the case for frequent consumers who suddenly increase their consumption. A problem situation might be working hard to meet a deadline, which is itself stressful, and drinking more coffee to cope (and stay awake). That would add anxiety on anxiety.' An anxiety sandwich, if you will.
When I float the idea on Twitter, my @-column becomes a gushing stream of tales that wouldn’t look out of place on a Talk To Frank leaflet.
'I had two coffees and was genuinely convinced I was having a heart attack.'
'I once sat on the floor and cried in Tesco because I thought I was losing my mind.'
'Once I drank a massive pot of coffee and was so convinced I was going to die that my dad drove from Hull to Manchester to pick me up.'
But among the horror stories are a few surprised coffee quaffers, people who have genuinely never made the connection between the hammering in their heart and the latte in their hand. And even among those who know deep down that caffeine turbo-charges their anxiety, very few – me included – have taken the obvious step of just not drinking it.
'I had a mocha one morning last week and it fucked me up till about 7pm,' says my friend Amy, 25. 'So many work meetings take place in coffee shops too, and I’m often too shy or anxious to ask for decaf. I wish I could just give up, but coffee is delicious.'
Is it though? Hot milk and hazelnut syrup are delicious, yep. And the smell is right up there with fresh croissants and new babies’ heads. But do we actually love the taste of coffee… or just the idea of it? I take a big swig of black Americano (I’m drinking one while I write this, what of it?) and try to focus really hard on the flavour. I’m getting notes of burnt wood and dark berries, with undertones of morning breath and boardroom meetings. I just can’t tell.
Likewise I know I could easily order decaf, but I don’t. Why don’t I? Is there part of me that enjoys the fluttery heart and static buzz of white noise behind my eyeballs, or have I just been conditioned to think that caffeine makes me edgy in more ways than one?
Maybe having an otherwise #clean lifestyle is what’s driving coffee’s seductive appeal. In a time when so many teens and 20-somethings are swearing off booze and narcotics and instead falling over giddy to find the best alfalfa sprouts in town, caffeine might just be the last vice standing. I don’t smoke or do drugs, I barely drink beyond what I get free at weddings. If I quit coffee too then my only reckless addiction would be overeating, which, let’s be honest, just doesn’t have as sexy a vibe.
So how can we keep a lid on the coffee crazies? One solution, surprisingly, is to drink more of it. 'Even for susceptible individuals frequent caffeine consumption results in tolerance to the anxiety effect of caffeine,' says Professor Rogers. 'This is generally good news – we become accustomed to it.'
Meanwhile Ted tells me, 'research by the University of California found that those who were prone to caffeine-induced anxiety could alleviate the anxiety by exercising.'
So my options: drown my panic in more caffeine, or try to outrun it. Or, of course, just give up.
Susie, 31, who quit her regular coffee habit three years ago, promises me there’s life after pumpkin spice lattes. 'At first I found it really hard and I had awful headaches for about a month, but now I only miss it occasionally,' she says. 'These days I rarely drink Coke or tea or anything caffeinated, but I am obsessed with peppermint tea. I sound super cool don't I?'
To be honest Susie, you mainly sound calm.
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