Mental health and wellbeing is very close to our hearts, and while we truly aim to have an always-on approach to covering all aspects of mental health, we have chosen to shine an extra bright light on #WorldMentalHealth today, and for the rest of October.
We bring you The Big Burn Out — a content series made up of honest personal essays, expert advice and practical recommendations.
I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder when I was at University, although I had suffered from anxiety symptoms for many years before that. I was told that I had a form of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), which manifests in different ways for different people. For me, it meant that I was hardly sleeping and I often felt like I was suffocating, especially if I was in a crowded place or stressful situation. I also had a nasty habit of ripping off the skin around my fingernails and on the callouses of my feet, which resulted in a lot of blood, pain, and embarrassment. The medical term for this is dermatophagia or excoriation.
My doctor prescribed me a few different medications over the years, and while they did help me feel more relaxed in the moment, they were nothing more than a band-aid. I needed to figure out a way to quell my anxiety symptoms for good.
"If you've ever felt the jitters after your morning cup of joe, imagine that feeling amplified 100 times over, to the point where you feel like your heart might beat out of your throat."
I was at a point in my life where I was doing a lot of yoga and learning more about holistic treatments, like meditation, acupuncture, and herbal supplements. I decided to go the all-natural route and change up the things in my life that I had control over. Over the course of several months, I changed my eating habits, eliminating all fried and processed foods, meditated every day, and significantly limited my time on social media. I also kept seeing my therapist regularly.
All of these definitely helped, but I was still dealing with my heart racing at inopportune times, particularly in the morning as I got my day started. I happened to stumble upon a blog post one day that spoke about the dangerous connection between caffeine and anxiety. If you've ever felt the jitters after your morning cup of joe, imagine that feeling amplified 100 times over, to the point where you feel like your heart might beat out of your throat. That's what it's like to drink coffee as someone with anxiety.
At that point in my life, I was having one or two cups of coffee a day, and it was a ritual I absolutely loved. I was a coffee snob, in fact (I blame it on my time living in Australia, which has the best coffee culture on the planet). However, I started to realise that every time I drank a cup of coffee, my hands would shake, I would get the nervous sweats, and I felt dehydrated. I just felt crappy all around. Yet somehow I just thought this was normal for people who drank coffee, and this was merely a sacrifice you had to make to enjoy the classic morning beverage.
After reading that blog post, I decided to give it up cold turkey. Unfortunately, I had ear-splitting headaches that radiated in my kneecaps for seven days straight, but after the withdrawal symptoms went away, the magic kicked in.
The longer I went without coffee, the more relaxed I felt throughout the day. I meditated in the morning instead of drinking a black coffee, which set me up to feel calm and even-keeled. As a result, I didn't get the afternoon crash and I simply felt more in control of my mind. I no longer felt frantic. My body started to produce its own energy rather than relying on caffeine to wake me up every day. Most importantly, my skin-picking habits slowly started to fall away. Because I was feeling less jittery than ever before, I had way less urges to peel the skin away from fingers.
"My body started to produce its own energy rather than relying on caffeine to wake me up every day. Most importantly, my skin-picking habits slowly started to fall away."
Since I've experienced these positive changes, I've spoken to quite a few people and read online that many others find relief from their intense anxiety symptoms when they give up coffee. Individuals with anxiety disorders already deal with enough excess energy as it is; our minds race for hours about the most minute things, we can't sit still, and we worry about everything until we're blue in the face. Caffeine promotes this rapid turnover of energy, so giving it up actually gives your body the chance to decompress and find its equilibrium.
I'm not saying that everyone with anxiety should give up coffee cold turkey (don't do it cold turkey, whatever you do!). But I found so much relief in my everyday life that I don't think I could ever go back to drinking caffeinated beverages. It's been two years since I gave up coffee, and my anxiety has only gotten steadily better over this time. I'm more in tune with what my body needs, and I'm quicker to engage in healthy self-care practices when I start to feel overwhelmed, like a Yin yoga session or a long, hot bath.
Even though I still love the smell of coffee, I don't miss it anymore. The pros have far outweighed the cons, and plus, if I feel like I need a warm, soothing beverage, I make myself a rooibos or chamomile tea. And it doesn't make my heart race a million miles an hour.