June was a young elementary school teacher who arrived at my office looking harried and stressed out. Jumpy and anxious, she explained that she loved her job but was struggling with anxiety.
I looked over at the woman in front of me. In addition to her cavernous bag overflowing with notebooks and school supplies, she carried a huge iced tea with her, and between gulps explained she needed to find a solution to start feeling better or she was going to quit this job which was “making her crazy.” She’d been unable to sleep through the night since the school year started. She was super anxious and described lying awake at night, thoughts swirling, ruminating about what could go wrong next.
June described her schedule, which included waking at 5am, downing a stream of 3 large coffees, then switching to iced tea around 3pm. Pervasive anxiety was the norm of her life, and she had landed on the idea that it must be the job she loved so much that was, somehow, causing her to be this anxious. Since it didn’t make sense to her, she hoped I might be able to provide some clarity from my outside perspective.
Is it anxiety? Or is it caffeine?
People are often quick to brush off the thought that caffeine may be affecting their anxiety. We live in a caffeine-addicted culture. And while it’s true that each person metabolizes caffeine differently, having any caffeine in your body will make it harder for you to sleep well. And unless you’re new here, you’ve heard me say it a hundred times: You can’t be healthy – physically or mentally – if you don’t get enough sleep. Sleep is connected to our emotional health and has clear links to most mental illnesses, including anxiety.
Caffeine is an adenosine blocker. What that means is that caffeine binds to the receptors that are looking for adenosine. Caffeine therefore makes us feel alert at first, then once the caffeine level wears off, the adenosine already in the bloodstream swoops in and – bam! – we start to feel drowsy again. This is what the 3pm crash is for many of us.
The accumulation of adenosine is also related to how much caffeine we have in our system. By drinking large amounts of caffeine, our bodies build up large stores of adenosine, which then make us more tired. If you don’t get adequate sleep, you may have an excess of adenosine, which makes you more groggy in the morning so you drink even more caffeine to compensate, and then you’re off to the races of a horrible chicken and egg cycle that messes with your ability to get a restful night of sleep again and again.
Getting curious about your caffeine intake
If you regularly experience anxiety that permeates your daily life, I would encourage you to start by simply taking notice of your caffeine intake.
When do you consume caffeine and in what forms?
Are you consuming it out of habit, or is its consumption predicated by a need such as feeling tired?
How many hours of sleep do you get each night?
Do you struggle to fall asleep, or stay asleep, or both?
What time do you consume the last of your caffeine for the day? Does that vary day to day?
We can’t fix what we can’t see, and unlike our weight or our moods, sleep can remain hidden outside of our awareness. We track things like diet, money, and fitness but think that somehow sleep should just take care of itself – and for many, it does just that. But for those that end up in my office, the vast majority have some kind of sleep dysfunction happening – a dysfunction they have yet to notice. So this where we begin, by just bringing awareness to your sleep habits and things in your life that may be impacting your ability to get a restful night of sleep such as caffeine intake.
You’ll be amazed by how much changes when you begin to simply pay attention and get curious about your habits.
For someone like June, who I mentioned above, experimenting with how much caffeine they consume and when can have a far greater impact on reducing anxiety than one might think. Caffeine is a powerful drug, and she was consuming it all day long, every day of the week. It was affecting her sleep and, therefore, her mood. When we’re in an anxious headspace and sleep deprived, it can be easy to shift the blame to everything else in our lives such as our job, our relationships, etc. But before we make big life changes like quitting, as June was considering, we can first assess our baseline habits that may be negatively impacting our ability to view our situation clearly.
If anxiety is making your life difficult to manage, I’d encourage you to pay attention, get curious, and experiment with your own caffeine intake. Getting a consistent restful night’s sleep isn’t something to take lightly, as its impact on your day to day existence is extensive. Removing the barriers to solid sleep such as limiting caffeine might just provide you with the release from the tentacles of anxiety that you’re seeking.