Brian Byrne, a tour manager based in Los Angeles, encountered a frightening episode a few years ago while enjoying a cold brew. He suddenly felt clammy, followed by shallow breathing, a hollow sensation in his chest, and a rapid, thumping heartbeat. Concerned, he stepped outside to get some air. “At that point, I was having racing thoughts, feeling like I was having a heart attack,” he recounted.

This wasn’t Byrne’s first experience with caffeine-induced panic attacks, but it was by far the most intense. “Drinking that coffee felt like I poured gasoline on a fire that was already smoldering,” he admitted. For a whole year after the incident, he abstained from caffeine entirely and managed to avoid another serious episode.

Many can empathize with Byrne’s ordeal of caffeine-related anxiety. While researchers cannot definitively state that caffeine causes anxiety, it is associated with an increased risk among individuals with and without psychiatric diagnoses.

WHY CAFFEINE MAY TRIGGER ANXIETY

Caffeine is a stimulant that activates the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the body’s fight-or-flight response. When stimulated, heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and sweating can all increase. However, other activities that trigger adrenaline, such as exercising or riding a roller coaster, can also evoke similar physiological responses.

Joseph Trunzo, Deputy Director of the School of Health and Behavioral Sciences at Bryant University, explains that the incongruity of experiencing these sensations while sitting calmly can lead some individuals to interpret the arousal as anxiety. Moreover, subconscious labeling of these symptoms as anxiety may reinforce the effect.

Other factors contribute as well. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain, which normally slow heart rate and induce relaxation. “When we ingest caffeine and it blocks those receptors, adenosine can’t do its job,” says Dr. Trunzo. Some researchers speculate this mechanism may contribute to heightened anxiety.

Furthermore, caffeine can disrupt sleep, particularly deep sleep crucial for anxiety prevention, notes Dr. Sheenie Ambardar, a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills. Consuming coffee within eight and a half hours of bedtime can lead to restless sleep, elevating anxiety levels the following day.

Individual responses to caffeine vary. Lina Begdache, an associate professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton, suggests genetic variants may influence how caffeine is metabolized. Those with slower metabolism may experience prolonged caffeine effects, potentially intensifying its impact.

MANAGING CAFFEINE-INDUCED ANXIETY

While caffeine cannot be quickly flushed from the system, there are strategies to manage anxiety if it occurs. Exercise can help distract and alleviate short-term symptoms.

Alternatively, Avigail Lev, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco, advises embracing the sensations rather than resisting them. This approach involves acknowledging where and how intensely the sensations are felt, which can diminish their debilitating effects.

CHANGING YOUR CAFFEINE RELATIONSHIP

If you suspect caffeine is contributing to anxiety, monitoring intake and its effects can provide clarity. Dr. Ambardar suggests keeping a log for a month to track caffeine consumption and associated feelings. Recommended daily limits are around 400 milligrams for adults, but individual tolerance varies.

Consider tapering caffeine intake gradually to assess its impact on anxiety levels. Dr. Trunzo recommends reducing consumption over time, as abrupt cessation may exacerbate symptoms.

Making lifestyle changes can also reduce susceptibility to caffeine’s effects. Dr. Begdache emphasizes improving overall energy levels through better sleep, exercise, hydration, and diet. These adjustments may transform your coffee from a potential anxiety trigger into a manageable energy boost.