Anxiety is feelings of worry and nervousness, and in intense forms, anxiety can manifest in a group of disorders called anxiety disorders. Caffeine is a stimulant that increases heart rate and can lead to nervousness and agitation, increasing anxiety levels. For people who already suffer from anxiety, caffeine can spur panic attacks, and for those who don’t normally feel anxious, caffeine can cause anxiety.
Caffeine is found in many coffees, teas, energy drinks and chocolates, as well as in some medicines. Caffeine is considered a stimulant because it stimulates the body’s central nervous system and temporarily increases the metabolism. Caffeine works by suppressing a chemical in the brain called adenosine. Adenosine slows down nerve cells and causes drowsiness. When caffeine is released in the bloodstream, the body does not distinguish between caffeine and adenosine, and therefore, treats caffeine as adenosine, causing a spike in energy and nerve cell interactions.
Caffeine causes an increase in heart rate and can make some people feel like their heart is pounding, even causing panic attacks. A panic attack is an intense feeling of terror and anxiety that feels like you are losing control and having a heart attack. According to Roland Griffiths, PhD, a professor in the departments of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, caffeine can trigger and worsen anxiety and panic disorders. Caffeine can also cause jitters, headaches, nervousness and irregular heartbeat.
The National Institute of Mental Health recommends that people who suffer from anxiety disorders should avoid caffeine, as it can worsen anxiety. Psychologist Norman B. Schmidt, PhD, studies the effect of caffeine on his patients with anxiety disorders. "If you tend to be a high-strung, anxious person, using a lot of caffeine can be risky,” Schmidt says. Whereas some people may feel more focused and energetic with caffeine, those who are prone to anxiety often feel nervous and a sense of impending doom.
Everyone’s body responds differently to caffeine, with some people, including those with anxiety disorders, more susceptible to getting nervous than others. Many people drink caffeinated beverages for a boost of energy in the morning or a pick-me-up when they’re tired. Some people develop a tolerance for caffeine and drink larger and larger amounts to produce the same effect, and, like other drug addictions, they experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using caffeine.
People with anxiety disorders should avoid caffeine, gradually reducing their intake if necessary. If you have no known history of anxiety disorders, but experience anxious symptoms such as racing heart, inability to sleep, jitters and nervousness after ingesting caffeine, consult your doctor for a check-up and reduce your caffeine intake. If you continue to experience anxiety after discontinuing caffeine usage, consult a therapist for help.