Since the dawning of the “Information Age” in the early 1980’s the pace of change has accelerated in our society. To keep pace with the explosion of new information and this rapid rate of change, many people have adopted a new coping strategy of increasing their consumption of caffeine. Caffeine is a drug. It is a stimulant which increases many of same physiological responses as the survival response known as the “Flight-Fight” response. It is this reaction by the body to the stimulation from caffeine that can trigger an anxiety-type physical reaction. Many people are unsuspecting and naïve regarding the full extent of this response to which often includes a common, and even, celebrated “rush” of energy. Knowing about this response can keep you from being a victim to caffeine related anxiety attacks.
As a stimulant, the effect of caffeine can be different from one person to the next. The amount of caffeine consumed, and then the amount actually absorbed by the body, can contribute to the range of reactions. It is not uncommon for caffeine to cause an increase in brain wave activity that can arouse a tired mind. This is the most desired response for many sleep deprived people. This can backfire on many people who may have a day long response to their morning coffee (or other caffeine source) because many people can not sleep well at bedtime as a response to this early caffeine consumption. This “vicious cycle” will then cause poor quality sleep/rest which requires more caffeine to get “up” for the next day’s activities.
The stimulation caused by caffeine can also increase heart rate and for some people increase their blood pressure as it simulates the release of excitatory hormones like adrenaline (epinephrine.) This rapid heart rate, when severe, can scare people, triggering the hormonal release which can cause a greater anxiety reaction. The frightening response to the physical associations of an anxiety attack can cause fear and can even drive people to the emergency rooms with the concern that the patient believes that they going to die from a heart attack. We have enough anxiety in our society without pushing ourselves over the edge with the stimulation of caffeine.
Caffeine can cause an increase in skeletal muscle tension as it triggers the classic flight response. This muscle tension can be distracting (loss of focus), cause fatigue, and in many cases increase the likelihood of increased muscle spasms and so, muscle contraction pain. In this way, caffeine can contribute to muscle tension headaches from the tightness of muscles in the jaw, neck, and shoulders. For people suffering from chronic muscular tension pain, this can contribute to their tension and pain. It will often cause an increased anxiety driven response to their pain which can intensify their chronic pain complaints. This is especially true for lower back pain and neck/shoulder pain, as well as the peripheral pains in the arms and legs that can be associated with back pain.
For those of you who use caffeine regularly, you should also know that there are plenty of cases of physical and psychological addiction to this drug. Many people feel withdrawal symptoms that are not comfortable when they try to discontinue their caffeine habit. If you want to discontinue, the best way to do this would be gradually over time. Substituting ½ de-caf into your morning coffee and minimizing other caffeine laden products will be helpful. Be patient and drink extra water!
In its defense, caffeine can be helpful for some types of headaches such as migraine headaches which can be reduced by caffeine or associated cafergot. (Cafergot is a brand name of the combination of ergotamine and caffeine.) With its stimulating effects on the digestive system, caffeine may also work as a laxative to minimize problems with constipation. Historically, European coffee “salons” were places where intellectuals could meet and have lively discussions while drinking brewed coffee which was more healthful than the untreated available water which was often contaminated with deadly diseases of the Middle Ages. The other alternative beverage for most Middle Age Europeans was to drink beer or alcoholic drinks which did not encourage good discussion, thinking, or productivity.
Since the 1980’s, our society has seen an explosion of coffee houses and Espresso stands. You can not get through any American city without being confronted by easily accessible purveyors of liquid coffee refreshments. Both young and old are caught in this “glamorous” habit with expanding zeal. A gift of choice is the insidious gift certificate for the expensive coffee houses. This has gotten to be big business.
Besides coffee or espresso drinks, caffeine is found in many products. Black teas, green tea, soft drinks, chocolate candy, and as an additive in many other products are but a few of these additional sources for caffeine. There are even a few products with commercial names like: Jolt, Red Bull, and RockStar that cater to the young caffeine crazed generation that seem to require higher concentrations of caffeine. I do not want to deprive people from indulging in these products, but people must be aware of what the effects of these products can do to their body’s and to people who interact with caffeine saturated folks. Many cases of “road rage” may be traced to the negative effects of over-caffeinated, stressed drivers.
Let’s have some common sense. Moderation is a great rule to follow, especially if you are one the people who are most sensitive to the effects of caffeine. Coffee businesses are not bad or the enemy, we just need to learn how use their products in the most appropriate ways.
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L. John Mason, Ph.D. is the country’s leading stress management expert and the author of the best selling “Guide to Stress Reduction.” Since 1977, he has offered Success & Executive Coaching and Training.
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