Caffeine-Induced Anxiety Disorder

What is Caffeine-Induced Anxiety Disorder?

Americans love their caffeine boosts and coffee shops; they love to share stories about scientific studies that prove the benefits of drinking one’s morning cup of tea or coffee. Scientists, however, have been saying for a long time that caffeine can also produce anxiety and even panic attacks, particularly for people who are predisposed to struggles with anxiety issues. In recent years, leading medical groups like the American Psychiatric Association have positively linked caffeine intake to several disorders in their official guidelines.

Caffeine-induced anxiety disorder is one of these newly highlighted disorders. Its symptoms range from irritating (e.g. excessive sweat and urination) to potentially debilitating (e.g. severe headaches or a loud ringing in the ears). Because its symptoms often align with those that signal other forms of anxiety disorders, caffeine-induced anxiety disorder can go unnoticed and ensuing misdiagnoses can have devastating effects. For example, an individual suffering from caffeine-induced anxiety disorder may begin taking anxiety medications with risky side-effects that will have little chance of success if the person continues to ingest caffeine at the same rate.

When one’s caffeine-induced anxiety disorder is properly pinpointed, two different treatment options emerge. On the one hand, the person suffering from the disorder can formulate a strategy to eliminate caffeine from the individual’s diet, thus removing the principal cause of the disorder. On the other hand, the individual can work with a doctor to discern the difference between the normal symptoms related to caffeine intake and the rather similar symptoms of an anxiety or panic attack. This second option allows the person to continue to use caffeine. Both options recognize caffeine as the primary cause of the anxiety disorder, but they take very different routes toward recovery.

Symptoms of Caffeine-Induced Anxiety Disorder

Human beings naturally experience anxiety when they find themselves in a stressful situation. A normal level of anxiety is part of the body’s way of alerting an individual to the stress level of the current situation and can provide necessary perspective. Recognizing the symptoms of caffeine-induced anxiety disorder first requires that one distinguish between standard nervous feelings, which can actually work to an individual’s advantage, and the extreme forms of fear, nervousness, and anxiety that point to the presence of a disorder.

The symptoms of this particular anxiety disorder can be difficult to pinpoint because they will not look the same for every individual. If an individual struggles with a certain form of anxiety even in the absence of caffeine, then caffeine will likely spark the particular symptoms of that form of anxiety. Also, caffeine-induced anxiety disorder may cause caffeine-induced sleep disorder.

The following list of symptoms are the most common symptoms related to caffeine-induced anxiety disorder. They emerge fairly quickly after an individual ingests caffeine, even in small amounts.

Symptoms of caffeine-induced anxiety disorder include:

  • Persistent jittery feelings
  • Pounding heart
  • Distracting and even sometimes debilitating ringing in the ears
  • Reddening face
  • Abnormal restlessness
  • Nervousness that does not match the conditions of one’s environment
  • Excessive bodily sweating
  • Unexplainable sense of impending doom
  • Severe headaches and migraines
  • Panic attacks
  • Odd reactions to seemingly inconsequential matters
  • Slurred or confused speech
  • Inability to sleep
  • Excessive urination
  • Muscle tension
  • Excessive fatigue

Those who have already been diagnosed with a general anxiety disorder will recognize some of these symptoms. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 18% of Americans experience an anxiety disorder in any given year, with women being 60% more likely than men to suffer from an anxiety disorder.

The key with these symptoms in relation to caffeine-induced anxiety disorders is to pinpoint their occurrence in relation to caffeine intake. When these symptoms persistently result in close proximity to one’s daily coffee or one’s midday energy drink, one should consider the possibility of the presence of caffeine-induced anxiety disorder.

Caffeine-Induced Anxiety Disorder Causes

The cause of caffeine-induced anxiety disorder is in one sense fairly obvious: caffeine intake! Caffeine is technically the most commonly used drug in the world. When an individual ingests caffeine, it physically affects the person’s body in profound ways. Caffeine actually inhibits the effects of adenosine (a neuromodulator that causes drowsiness) in the human brain and produces the desired effects of alertness and even happiness by freeing dopamine to flow.

Given caffeine’s power over the human brain, it comes as little surprise that it can also produce negative effects. Exceeding the recommended daily amount of caffeine, which doctors place at around 400 mg, can lead to many of the symptoms outlined above even for those who do not otherwise struggle with anxiety issues. Caffeine even carries addictive properties and the potential for withdrawal symptoms, as many coffee drinkers have had the misfortune of experiencing when they miss their daily cup.

Those with any one of the many anxiety disorders that the American Psychiatric Association recognizes are also susceptible to caffeine-induced anxiety disorder. Some of the most common effects that follow from caffeine intake (e.g. jitteriness, sweating, heart pounding) are often triggers for anxiety and panic attacks. In other words, what may feel like a normal increase in alertness for one person may quickly feel like the onset of an anxiety attack for someone who routinely struggles with an anxiety disorder.

Successfully pinpointing caffeine as the primary cause of a person’s anxiety disorder can have a profound impact on a person’s life. A proper diagnosis can prevent an individual from turning to costly, risky medications that will fail to treat the underlying issue. These medications often trigger additional mental health struggles that further obscure caffeine’s initial role.

Treatment of Caffeine-Induced Anxiety Disorder

There are two diametrically opposed treatment routes for caffeine-induced anxiety disorders. Some doctors and psychiatrists prefer the first, others tend to opt for the second. The success of these treatments depends on the specifics of an individual’s struggles, but the basic steps are as follows.

For the first treatment method, the person suffering from caffeine-induced anxiety disorder slowly weans off of caffeine. For someone who only ingests a limited amount of caffeine in the first place, this process can proceed very quickly. The individual may experience some signs of withdrawal (e.g. headaches, depression, distraction) but will soon cease ingestion of caffeine entirely.

For many individuals, however, defeating caffeine-induced anxiety disorder will require a longer battle via this first treatment method. People’s addiction to caffeine can be too entrenched to quit easily. In these cases, small steps are necessary to slowly move away from caffeine’s detrimental effects without producing debilitating withdrawal symptoms. For example, experts suggest that individuals slowly delay their morning coffee until later in the day because the body actually produces a natural energy kick via cortisol when it wakes up. Individuals can work with their body’s natural rhythms to maximize the positive effects of caffeine intake as they slowly move away from their dependence on it.

The second treatment route, somewhat paradoxically, embraces the intake of caffeine for the person suffering from caffeine-induced anxiety. The person’s medical team works with the individual to slowly learn to recognize the difference between caffeine’s effects on the body and an anxiety or panic attack. In other words, the experts help the person realize that their inner feelings and bodily reactions are a natural response to coffee or chocolate, not the onset of an attack.

Many people express interest in this alternative treatment route because of the reported health benefits and societal benefits of reasonable caffeine consumption. Scientific studies have linked caffeine to increased cognitive performance, reduced risk of depression and suicide, and even a reduction in rates of cognitive decline as people age. Socially, people routinely congregate around caffeine consumption (e.g. coffee shops) and often rely on caffeine boosts to keep up with particularly fast-paced, intensive workplaces.

Caffeine-Induced Anxiety Disorder Prevention

Mental health experts routinely agree that a proactive approach to mental health is key to preventing various disorders like general anxiety disorder and panic attacks. The case of caffeine-induced anxiety disorder is no different. Persons interested in taking steps to avoid the onset of this particular disorder have at least two legitimate courses of action that roughly correspond to the two treatment options outlined above.

First, an individual can simply avoid caffeine entirely. For those who already struggle with anxiety, panic attacks, or depression, this proactive step can prove to be very wise. One might choose to think of it in a loosely analogous manner to alcohol consumption. Moderate alcohol consumption is not necessarily problematic, but for individuals with family or personal histories of alcohol abuse and addiction, proactive steps to avoid imbibing alcohol are the standard prescription.

Total avoidance of caffeine, of course, is far from simple for the many Americans who rely on caffeine’s rather alluring effects; few coffee drinkers or chocolate lovers want to simply abandon their socially acceptable drug of choice. When considered in combination with caffeine’s potential health benefits in certain forms, many people reject the abstinence route in favor of cautious consumption.

This second prevention option may work well for the many Americans who do not already struggle with other forms of mental health disorders. Medical experts acknowledge that a small dose of caffeine each day sometimes links up with positive mental health outcomes in numerous studies. As noted in the previous section, a keen awareness of caffeine’s impact on one’s bodily functions can even help those who do suffer from general anxiety or panic attacks. An individual’s ability to resist equating the normal symptoms of caffeine intake with the onset of an anxiety attack can potentially contribute to a person’s ability to cope with other forms of anxiety.

Conclusion of Caffeine-Induced Anxiety Disorder

Caffeine consumption is ingrained deep within the fabric of American society and affects the lives of most Americans in a range of ways. For many, caffeine provides a gentle boost of energy at a key turning point during their work day. For others, the promise of caffeine’s pleasant effects provides the necessary motivation to crawl out of bed in the morning despite a lack of good sleep.

For some Americans, however, caffeine has profoundly negative effects on their quality of life. In many cases, these people do not realize the role that caffeine plays in their struggles. Thankfully, mental health professionals have recently started to catalog caffeine-induced anxiety disorder alongside other disorders. Persons experiencing these disorders are finally beginning to uncover the deceptively powerful role that caffeine has been playing in their struggles for mental health and well-being.

A diagnosis of caffeine-induced anxiety disorder does not necessarily preclude an individual from ever enjoying a rich cup of coffee or delicious chocolate bar again. Abstinence from caffeine certainly surfaces as one potential treatment option; for those with minimal caffeine intake from the start, this option tends to work best. Caffeine addicts, however, do have another choice. They can work with medical professionals to manage their caffeine-induced anxiety disorder by learning to distinguish clearly between caffeine’s effects and unrelated anxiety or panic attack symptoms.

Last Reviewed:
September 25, 2017
Last Updated:
November 22, 2017
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