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Caffeine & Anxiety 101

Caffeine Can Trigger Anxiety
Did you know that caffeine can increase your anxiety level, making the small and mundane problems you encounter every day seem worse than they really are? Do you really want to consume large quantities of a substance that is known to decrease feelings of well-being by releasing hormones that make you feel bad?

Caffeine affects everyone differently, of course, but there’s serious evidence that it raises anxiety levels in many people, especially those who already have a history of anxiety-related issues and symptoms. 
How does caffeine affect the nervous system?

Caffeine is water soluble. This means that it passes easily through cell membranes and, therefore, can travel trough the body at a rapid pace.

As it travels, caffeine attaches to neural receptors (the parts of the body which transmit signals throughout). This allows it to have a direct effect on every part of the body, including the brain. This often leads to changes in thoughts and/or mood.

What does caffeine have to do with anxiety and other, anxiety-related, disorders?

According to Roland Griffiths, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, “...caffeine can exacerbate anxiety and panic disorders”.

Caffeine tends to cause nervousness or the “jitters” in its users. It makes people high-strung. Typically, in small amounts, this is not a problem. People will get over their “caffeine high” in a short amount of time. However, with continual use, caffeine can cause extreme anxiety and/or panic disorders.

People who are prone to, or have already developed, anxiety and/or panic disorders tend to understand the side effects of caffeine, such as nervousness or “jitters”, as much more severe conditions than they truly are. This means that, while most people only feel, for example, “jittery” for a short amount of time and think nothing of it, others that are on their way to developing a legitimate anxiety disorder will get feelings of “impending doom” or danger. The conditions brought about by caffeine make them very uncomfortable and, in some cases, absolutely terrified.


What is anxiety?

There is a major difference between nervousness and an anxiety disorder. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is the most common type of anxiety disorder and is characterized by “a pervasive and excessive state of anxiety lasting at least 6 months”.  

Not everyone that develops an anxiety disorder will develop GAD specifically. However the symptoms of GAD and other anxiety disorders are often similar. Almost 30% of the United States population suffers some type of anxiety disorder, including ones developed from caffeine use.


What are Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks are defined as “an overwhelming sense of impending doom”. Panic attacks can happen rarely, as a side effect of major anxiety. They can also happen sporadically, for no reason at all. For example, Panic Disorder is accompanied by not only persistent worry and anxiety, but also frequent panic attacks.

Symptoms of panic attacks include;

Heart palpitations
Trembling
Dizziness
Intense dread
Fear of dying


Some of these are also side effects of caffeine alone, even in those that have not been diagnosed with any particular disorder.

How does one treat these disorders?

Treatment of psychological disorders varies depending on the person with the disorder. However, typical treatments include therapy and/or medication.

Prevention is also key. Some people are naturally prone to these disorders, because of genetics, environment, etc. However, by cutting out caffeine, even just a bit, the effects can be drastically decreased.

There is no doubt amongst the scientific and psychological community that caffeine plays a role in the development and/or worsening of psychological disorders.


References:

Caffeine: The Neurologic Effects. Fitday. Retrieved from 
http://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/nutrition/healthy-eating/caffeine-the-neurologic-effects.html#b

Clay, R. (2000). Brewing Trouble. MedicineNet. Retrieved from
http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=50820

Feist, G. & Rosenberg, E. (2012). Psychology Perspectives and Connections. United States: 
McGraw -Hill Companies, Inc.
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