The Two Schools of Caffeine Consumption For the Mind

Some say that caffeine and mindfulness are mutually exclusive, and some can’t imagine one without the other. It’s time for a deep dive.

A few years ago, a seemingly innocent post graced the r/Mindfulness subreddit, one of the least offensive parts of the sprawling website. The user listed reasons why they find mindfulness and caffeine to be impossible to balance and detailed their journey of gradually quitting caffeine. The comment section was divided. Some were appalled at the idea that people consume caffeine and even consider mindfulness, while others rebelled, saying that a morning coffee is their favourite part of their mindfulness routine. To this day, the debate goes on. Coffee yes? Coffee no? This is our best attempt at presenting both arguments and letting you decide for yourself whether you should quit caffeine or use it as a tool for mental fitness.

[We’ll be using the caffeine and coffee interchangeably throughout this article, but the same applies to all caffeinated beverages.]

Coffee as the Mindfulness Killer

In his brilliantly laid out article from 2017, Matt Cartagena details how he felt guided by ‘two life coaches’ when he practised mindfulness while drinking coffee regularly—one was telling him to slow down, the other to speed up. He felt like keeping both in his life was an oxymoron. Caffeine was a force that constantly told him to keep moving, pumping him full of adrenaline, and covering up the dreary parts of everyday life with energetic highs without contributing to any meaningful change. He was unable to tap into mindfulness’ full potential while rampant adrenaline dictated his moods. Coffee simply had to go.

The philosophy behind caffeine consumption, which is focused on productivity, speed, and focus, can easily be seen as an antithesis to mindfulness. Many bloggers and everyday people who share their mindfulness journeys online agree, joining ‘caffeine free’ groups on social media that warn of the normalised detrimental side effects of caffeine.

Caffeine can cause and worsen feelings of anxiety and insomnia, cause headaches, dehydration, and high blood pressure, which certainly aren’t the desired results.

These symptoms (as well as the benefits) largely depend on your ability to metabolise caffein and your sensitivity to it. Sensitivity to caffeine is completely personal and dependent on many factors. For instance, did you know that smokers metabolise caffeine twice as fast as non-smokers? Everyone’s body is unique, which means you should always resist random office coffee runs or drinking coffee out of politeness. Just say no.

For reference, here’s a chart of caffeine content in popular caffeinated drinks.

With coffee, less is often more. We may think that we need another ‘full cup’, but drinking too much caffeine actually has the opposite effect of perking us up—too much can make you anxiously sluggish. Again. Not a desired result.

But when most research refers to ‘excessive’ coffee drinking, they don’t go after the ordinary folk who have a cup or two per day. It’s the four-to-six crowd they’re worried about, and this is an example of a study that warns of brain shrinkage and increased risks of dementia in those with high caffeine consumption.

People who have quit caffeine claim that it took them up to a year to feel like they knew what their baseline energy levels were without the stimulant, that they discovered whole new parts of their personality, or made huge leaps on their journeys of self-discovery.

Here’s another great link to check out if you’re considering reducing or quitting: a blogger decides to kick his caffeine addiction and go on a caffeine break, documenting his journey.

If your mental fitness goals lean towards finding peace, balance, and a sense of slowness, then you might want to stop consuming caffeine completely, because many swear that it’s gotten them out of the ‘productivity narrative’ and made them more aligned with themselves. Here’s a guide that can help you do it in about nine days. Good luck!

… But hang on a minute! Coffee Can be Good For Mindfulness!

Here’s the thing. For every single piece of research about caffeine that says things like ‘caffeine doesn’t actually do anything but eradicate the symptoms of withdrawal’, there are lots of articles that support the health benefits of consuming it in moderation—for body and mind. Like the fact that a cup of coffee a day may keep retinal damage away, higher coffee intake may be linked to lower prostate cancer risk, coffee consumption is associated with lower liver cancer risk, a cup of coffee before exercise helps burn more calories, caffeine boosts problem solving ability (but not creativity), and these are just some of the more recent studies conducted in the last few years.

Moderation is key, which is why you should definitely consider an occasional caffeine fast to reset your tolerance. In our humble opinion, it’s not always the consumption of caffeine that’s the problem, but overconsumption. Research shows that as little as 40mg of caffeine improves alertness, focus, and problem-solving ability, so why do caffeinated drinks often contain at least twice as much caffeine (and a barista flat white can contain up to 233 mg per cup)?

Try mixing decaf into your coffee and feel the difference. Less anxiety. More focus.

Coffee (or your desired drink of choice) can be great and there’s a reason we like starting our days with it. Caffeine gives us the boost we need to kickstart our day (even if we have absolutely nothing planned), it makes us feel good, and most of us see coffee as part of an irreplaceable morning ritual. In fact, there are people who consider coffee an essential part of their mental fitness.

A mindful coffee break is a chance to disconnect from the stressful world around us, press pause on the day, and take time out to practice some self care. The Germans call it the ‘Kaffeepause’, and it’s meant to be a literal break from the rest of your day where you gather your loved ones around for some chat (or if you’re inviting friends, some Kaffeeklatsch—gossip over a cuppa). The coffee is an opportunity for rejuvenation and a daily reset. If we can respect its powerful stimulating ability, we can frame it correctly within the day and fully immerse our senses into the experience of coffee.

Lots of people see their morning coffee as a mindfulness ritual and a chance to meditate without the traditional lotus posture setting. The beginning of a caffeine kick lets them switch gears from slow to fast, but they’ve already found their dose of inner peace and can carry the awareness into the rest of their day.

Drinking coffee with awareness can help you reap the energetic benefits of its inherently pushy nature without letting it take the reins and make you into an anxious wreck. At the end of Matt Cartagena’s article, he admits that harmonising the two life coaches that represent caffeine and mindfulness is hard, but not impossible. He recommends that you find creativity and motivation without having to resort to caffeine even if you still enjoy drinking it regularly—which is great advice for anyone who depends on coffee to provide those impulses externally.

In essence, it’s important to experiment. If you’re scared of what would become of you if you skipped one morning coffee or reduced your daily intake by one cup, then it’s likely that you’re due for a little pause/reset.

Step out of your comfort zone, see what’s out there, and come back to caffeine on your terms.

Minderful does more than this amazing blog. We’ve also got a mental fitness app in the works and a lovely podcast where people just like you share their finest mental fitness tips. Like Lauren’s morning coffee… how topical…

Do more for your mind.