Quitting coffee

I love coffee. I’ve been drinking coffee for over two decades. Over the years I have come across plenty of research nudging me to quit coffee but I paid it no attention, preferring to be in denial. I couldn’t imagine depriving myself of one of the few pleasures in my life. I did cut it down from unlimited cups a day to two, and eventually to just one in the morning.

Don’t get me wrong. Coffee has plenty of benefits if taken in moderation. Except when one has anxiety.

Why is coffee bad for anxiety

This is what happens when you are in real danger, i.e. a robber chasing you:

Body releases adrenaline → blood pressure and heart increases, you become more mentally alert and your muscles tense → either to run for your life or fight the robber

This is what happens when you drink coffee:

Body releases adrenaline → blood pressure and heart increases, you become more mentally alert and your muscles tense → either to run for your life or fight the robber…except there is no robber

Each time we drink coffee, it is as good as sending tiny shocks to our body, signalling to it that we are in danger. That is why we have the coveted effect of being hyper alert, as it is meant to be a life-saving mechanism. People with health nervous systems get away with moderate consumption of coffee because their system recovers eventually from the stressful stimuli.

However, for people with chronic anxiety their nervous systems are compromised, so instead of relaxing eventually, our bodies are unable to recover from the stress. Every gulp of that coffee sends more and more danger signals, contributing to increased chronic stress and anxiety.

I wasn’t able to fully commit to quitting coffee until the information I had known all these years suddenly synthesised in my head one day, and I started visualising lions chasing me every morning each time I drank a cup of coffee. I asked myself whether I truly wanted to put my body under this sort of stress just for a few hours of alertness?

Maybe a few months ago the answer would have been yes, but I think the work on myself for the past two years is starting to pay off. I finally developed enough care for my self to actually prioritise my body’s health.

Coping with terrible withdrawal

I was lucky not to get any caffeine withdrawal headaches. Caffeine withdrawal is supposed to last for a week but I think for me it took two months, my habit was only a cup a day. I experienced it as having terrible energy levels: I could barely move, and I became uninterested and unmotivated to do anything.

Waking up in early mornings used to be a joy. I would wake up at around 6–7am, have a cup of coffee, and write. For those two months, getting out of bed was really hard. I was convinced my dopamine receptors were chronically damaged and they refused to be activated without coffee.

There is no timeline with trying to heal with a conscious intervention and experimentation. I had no idea when I would snap back into life again, and I was faced with the reality that I may just have to cope with this sluggishness for the rest of my life.

I was tempted to give up. Maybe feeling alive for 3–4 hours is better than none. But I weighed it: do I prefer to feel dead, or do I prefer to feel perpetual fear and anxiety? This is what having chronic health issues come down to — having to pick the lesser of the evils on a daily basis.

The good that came out of it

I stopped feeling so much existential and unreasonable dread. I still have bouts of anxiety when something bad happened, but it wasn’t like a switch that refused to go off.

After two months, I started to make myself do tiny tasks. I have been sick so much that I know enough science to trick my brain. To be honest, I don’t even know where the will comes from, did my dopamine receptors recover enough to generate a tiny bit of motivation even to perform little experiments on myself? The science today is still hazy. I just keep on trying health experiments in order to keep the hope of getting better.

Slowly, I started feeling better, increasing the complexity of my tasks. What I have learned about recovery is that simply resting is not enough after a certain stage. The body is designed to repair and rejuvenate itself with enough stimuli, the tricky part is to find the sweet spot and not to over-stress it with too much. Completing manageable tasks probably contributed to the improvement of my dopamine receptivity. These are all hypotheses, but they are all I can make when there are no definite improvement strategies for chronic illnesses.

There are adjustments made. I had to learn to do more complex tasks in the afternoon rather than in the morning, and not be frustrated when my brain takes its time to awaken. With no artificial adrenaline surge in the morning , my body now feels most awake during the afternoons, and overall my energy levels feel more stable comparatively to the caffeine crashes I was used to. I no longer feel the peak mental clarity I used to with coffee, and I do miss it.

However, I am trying to design another experiment to circumvent this. I am attempting to jog every week day morning. I have always hated jogging, so I am curious to see the results. Follow along!

This is one of the experiments I am making with my life. Support my writing and experiments on Patreon. Illustrations are terribly but proudly sketched with the Apple Pencil and Procreate.