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How I Kicked the Coffee Habit as a Highly Sensitive Person With Anxiety

Everyone around me was doing it. It couldn’t be that bad. There are dealers on every street corner, offering me my next fix in plain sight. I could stop anytime, so I wasn’t really addicted… was I? But when the high faded, I ended up feeling more lethargic than before, and I was more than a little anxious and agitated.

I’m talking, of course, about coffee addiction. It’s an addiction so widely accepted and seen as “normal” in our society that most of us never even stop to consider its effects on our emotional states, our bodies and our energy levels. Eighty-five percent of the adult U.S. population consumes at least one caffeinated beverage every single day. I thought it was harmless to be this “typical American coffee drinker.” And because of my passion for wellness, I even took it one step further by doing coffee the “healthy” way — by opting for raw honey as sweetener, and dairy-free creamers. I was doing everything right. But it didn’t feel like it.

My energy levels plummeted in the early afternoon, rather abruptly, when I still had a full day ahead of me. I was getting off work and thinking of nothing but napping. If I did get to nap, I would spend the afternoon in bed, get up long enough to eat dinner, catch up on social media, then back to bed I went for the night. The thing is, I was going to bed early. I was sleeping a full eight hours most nights. Why didn’t it matter the next day?

On post-coffee mornings I was upbeat, but I started noticing I was incredibly anxious and quick to temper. I felt awake and alive, but it wasn’t in a good quality state of mind. I started considering I am not the typical American coffee drinker at all; as a highly sensitive person (HSP) with anxiety, my moods are subject to the most delicate of changes. And nothing changes the body quite like the caffeine we receive from coffee.

It’s no wonder that coffee, or any other caffeinated beverage, can have a profound effect on our moods and emotional inner workings. Caffeine tricks the brain into releasing dopamine and serotonin, those “feel good” chemicals. In addition, hormones including adrenaline and norepinephrine are released. These hormones are involved in the body’s “fight or flight” response, but if you aren’t actually fighting for your life, instead this is easily triggered into anxiety, irritation and hostility.

These effects are not limited to highly sensitive people or those with chronic anxiety. One study found that people drinking excessive amounts of caffeine show symptoms that are almost “indistinguishable” from anxiety disorders. You can imagine how much more pronounced the effects of this powerful stimulant can be on HSPs.

Simply put, caffeine isn’t just going to affect our mood. It may positively turn it upside down and lead to an emotional roller coaster. This, unfortunately, can affect our relationships, careers and our overall wellness. I was certainly starting to see this in my own experience, and feeling myself losing control.

My new routine consisted of three main components for success:

1. Get enough sleep.

If I started self-enforcing a more reasonable bedtime, I would be less likely to substitute my lack of energy with a quick pick-me-up. If this means I cut the power to my phone off promptly at 9 p.m. to get this done, then so be it. Everywhere we turn, health gurus and doctors are urging us to turn off our screens; isn’t it about time we listen?

2. Substitute a healthier alternative.

Hot coffee in the morning was a source of comfort for me, so instead, I tried green tea. Green tea has more health benefits than the black variety, attributed to its lack of processing. It’s higher in protective polyphenols, the most active of which function as powerful antioxidants. Antioxidants are known to protect the body against disease and are an important part of a healthy diet.

3. Eat a more balanced diet.

Food is fuel, and instead of packing my body full of sugars that would just “bring me down” later in the day, I decided to make better choices. Whole grains like plain organic oatmeal with fresh fruit in the morning, then a large salad at lunch, just as my energy is starting to dwindle. Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach and dandelion greens mixed into romaine with a variety of vegetables, nuts and seeds will help power the body with vitamins and minerals. I started paying attention to the dressings ingredients, looking for those without processed sugars.

For me, on the very first day I switched to green tea, I felt remarkably better. As I continued throughout the week, I noticed my mood was much more stable. I know the switch may not be as easy for others. Some people experience headaches when they cut down on caffeine, and I was fully prepared for that possibility, arming myself with tall glasses of water and kombucha throughout the day. The headaches never came, and now the water and kombucha are a part of my regular daily intake of fluids. Some mornings, refreshed by my new bedtime, I do not even feel the need to drink hot tea. One of my favorite alternatives is chopped fresh strawberries and lemon in my stainless steel water bottle.

There are times I have a craving for brewed coffee bean, and for that, I’ll take a sample size cup of decaf from my local natural grocery store. Deprivation is never a good component in any diet and can cause major regression, so I allow myself this treat on occasion.

It only took a few days of feeling emotional and physical wellness to make me wonder why I ever tortured myself with a coffee addiction in the first place. The effects of simply feeling good have a domino effect on all aspects of our lives. That out of control feeling I had? It’s gone baby, gone.

Photo by Gian Cescon on Unsplash

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