Did you know that there are small mistakes you could be making unconsciously that make it harder for you to feel happy — even when things are going well for you?
Happiness is a state of being that requires the coordination of several big factors: What’s going on in your mind, how you manage your emotions, whether you feel connected to others, or that your life has a sense of purpose to it. These are things we know.
But it’s easy to forget that we are one with our bodies. Maintaining your sense of mental and emotional wellbeing is a physical experience. There are a number of things that you could be doing daily, without even realizing you may be sabotaging your happiness in the process.
Here’s a big one: Caffeine:
I will never forget one client I worked years ago who came to me for help with her anxiety. She worked hard in therapy, and did a great job of applying the tools we discussed. She practiced new cognitions. She exercised. She did her mindfulness practice. Her anxiety was greatly reduced, but she would still go through periods where she felt super-anxious. She could not completely break free from her racing heart, apprehension, sleepless nights, and irritability with others.
Then I saw her after just after she came home from a week-long backpacking trip in the mountains. She was calm, joyful, and completely at peace. Her anxiety had vanished.
The following week, it was back in full force — she was snapping at her husband, waking up at 3am, and ruminating about her job. We were both confused. Could it be the fact that she’d been on vacation? No, other vacations did not have this impact on her. The exercise, or being outdoors? No, she exercised routinely, and often spent time in nature.
After much rummaging around in the minutia of her experience, attempting to figure out what in the heck was different when she was backpacking, she shared that she’d forgotten to bring her coffee with her on the trip. Typically, she drank 2-3 cups a day. She’d totally detoxed from caffeine while in the woods. When she came home, she went right back to her old habits.
We decided to have an experiment. She agreed to completely cut out caffeine again for a week, and just notice her experience. She returned the following week, beaming and happy. Her “anxiety” was completely gone.
Caffeine and Anxiety
Caffeine is a central-nervous system stimulant that mimics the physical symptoms of anxiety. It creates energy, muscle tension, hyper-focus, and the “revved up” experience that your body goes through when you go into a stress response or “fight or flight” mode.
Whenever we perceive danger, or are concerned about an impending threat, our bodies speed up naturally. However, when we’re on stimulants we go into fight or flight much more easily. It’s like we’re on a hair trigger when we’re caffeinated.
Mind – Body Connection
Here’s the part that can really mess you up: When you experience physiological arousal like your heart beating faster, muscle tension, and shallow breathing you are having the physical experience of fear. And then you are more likely to worry. Your mind follows your body’s lead.
Caffeine makes you experience anxiety, physiologically. If you’re feeling tense, your mind wanders out into the future and finds you something that validates your feeling. Once your conscious mind bites into something to worry about, then the feedback loop of anxiety grinds into action — your stress response cascades through you as your mind connects with threats.
Your worried mind and scared body reinforce each other. The more stressed and anxious you feel, the more focused on danger your mind becomes. Your mind can turn into a bulldog that will simply not let go of worrisome thoughts.
As if that’s not bad enough — feeling scared and thinking about threatening things also makes you vulnerable to emotional reasoning: “I feel scared, so there must be something to fear.” You basically get tricked into believing your worries are true.
It’s a cycle that can be very difficult to untangle yourself from. It’s hard to figure out where anxiety comes from, what’s a real threat, and what is just your mind churning away in response to your biologically-based stress response.
The other thing that is sneaky about caffeine is that it’s one of those substances that takes a while to be metabolized by your body. It can build up in your system over days and weeks, so if you’re a regular coffee drinker you may not think you’re having that much caffeine (only one or two cups a day) and still experience anxiety-producing effects that will play nasty tricks on your body and your mind.
Have an Experiment
If you are prone to anxiety, you may consider having your own “caffeine cleanse” experiment, just to see what happens. Take a break for one week, and notice if your “anxious symptoms” go away.
Create a New Story
Another thing to try (if you love, love, love your coffee) is to simply attribute any stress or “anxiety” you’re feeling to the brew. Noticing how you feel, and then saying to yourself, “My body feels anxious right now because I just drank two cups of coffee” will cut your time-traveling mind off at the pass. If you prevent your mind from connecting with “threats” to scare yourself with while you’re caffeinated, you’ll prevent yourself from spiraling into Anxiety with a Capital-A.
Try it and let me know what happens!
Over and out, Lisa