Monday, August 16, 2010

Coffee Anxiety

I've given up on coffee. Not an easy decision because I love a good cup of coffee and Bend has some seriously excellent coffee (personal favorites: Thump and Lone Pine).

But I have a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a nearly continual feeling of apprehension that something bad is about to happen. It causes a tightening of the diaphragm, a continuous knot in the stomach. It will wake me up in the middle of the night for a sleepless hour or two of fretting about . . . nothing.

See, that's the difference between fear and anxiety.

With fear, we have something specific to be afraid of. Such as spiders, or an upcoming IRS audit, or Justin Bieber. We become aware of the problem; our pulse and breathing accelerate, adrenaline squirts into our vascular system as we are alerted to an issue that we know we need to take care of or avoid. 

Anxiety, on the other hand, grinds on, it is "... a feeling of apprehension or fear. [but] The source of this uneasiness is not always known or recognized, which can add to the distress you feel." (NYTimes, emphasis mine.)

There is no issue you can solve, nothing you can avoid, the feeling is prevalent, invasive, and constant. It doesn't stop. It grinds on.

I've gone the shrink route. I have been therapized more than once, and near as I can tell some of my anxiety is PTSD from experiences I had when I was a adolescent, and some of it goes so far back that I reckon that I should just chalk it up to temperament.

Medicine does not have much to offer the sufferer of GAD. Drug companies have made inroads into depression (even though they do not understand how their SSRI meds work), but the best they can offer for anxiety is essentially sedatives, tranquilizers.

Jack is not a fan of sedation or tranquilization, his father's warnings about sloth and laziness and not applying himself ring in his ears, so he prefers to keep himself alert and unsedated. Besides, he does have to drive himself around town, and sedatives, etc., are contraindicated when driving, operating heavy machinery such as nuclear power plants, or bookkeeping.*

Several years ago I quit coffee (for some reason or another, I forget: it might have been due to frugality, or maybe as an experiment to ease my stress while digging myself out of an ugly divorce as well as personal and business bankruptcies) and I recall that my anxiety level dropped.

I subsequently learned that coffee is a huge contributing factor to my background level of anxiety. One cup of coffee and I would be anxious for hours and hours.

And here's the weird part: it's coffee, not caffeine that triggers anxiety. I found that I could drink tons of caffeine in tea and cola and Red Bull and maté without any feeling of anxiety whatsoever, whereas even one cup of decaffeinated coffee freaked me out.

I have no idea what compound, or compounds, in coffee might be responsible for this, but I'm satisfied that the results of my (n=1) clinical trial are accurate.

Anyway. A few years ago, I began to slowly add coffee back into my life. A cup of espresso in the afternoon when I was slowing, then a cup every morning, then full-blown cups of strong drip coffee. I wasn't sure if I saw a commensurate rise in anxiety as my coffee consumption went up.

But I think it did. I think it snuck up on me without me noticing, a lobster or frog is said to not notice slowly heating water.

I didn't see it coming, my old friend anxiety, creeping back into my life, a slackjawed grin on its face.

Last week I found myself lying in bed in the middle of the night, another in a long series of anxiety-ridden dark nights, another hour or two staring at the ceiling, feeling that familiar knot gripping my stomach, idly wondering how many more months and years of this could I take.

Suicidal thoughts, actually. I mean, what's the point if one has nothing more than anxiety-filled days and nights to look forward to?

"How did you sleep?" I asked Mrs Elliott in the morning. I know that my thinking is untrustworthy and counted on her to ask me back how my night had been.

"I slept well," she said sleepily. How about you?

I told her, I told her about my anxiety, my pessimism. She thoughtfully asked whether I might want to give up coffee again. She knew my history with coffee.

"Yeah," I said. That's a real good idea.

The anxiety grind sucks, so why not?

So I've ditched coffee again. Even though nothing has quite the big fat bold rich flavor of a properly-steeped cup of carefully-ground Lone Pine beans, I do love the clean austerity of a good cup of properly-brewed sencha or gunpowder green tea.

And I think I'm feeling something . . . a lightening, a relaxing.

Case in point: Yesterday was a warm one. Even Mrs Elliott, who like many women seems to have come unequipped with a furnace, feels the warmth. I felt a laziness, a proper "this is Sunday and I'm happy not to go anywhere and not to do anything" lassitude that contrasts sharply with my usual anxiety-driven restlessness.

I made lunch for myself, managed to drum up sufficient energy to lever the cap off a rather nice unoaked Chardonnay from Newport Market and made a pizza Margherita from scratch, including the crust which I made using leavening that Gordon at Baked kindly gave me. It was tasty.

So it was not a day entirely lacking in ambition, just one without the anxious grind.  

I'll give this coffee-free lifestyle a few weeks to see how it plays out.

* Really bad things can happen with sloppy bookkeeping. And, near as I can tell, "bookkeeping" is the only word in our language which has three doubled letters in a row. Prove me wrong - Ed.


  1. I get more generalized anxiety from drinking alcohol than from coffee. Not at the time I drink, but over the next couple of days.

    I drink coffee in the mornings, but nothing in the afternoon and evening.

    Just saying.

  2. Jack, your coffee thing is weird. I can't help wondering if it's really coffee that causes the anxiety, or a psychological association of coffee with anxiety. Anyhow, if you feel better without coffee I guess the reason for it doesn't matter.

  3. huh. I just quit caffeine myself. After five days of working insane corporate retail while experiencing heavy withdrawal symptoms, I finally feel normal. I hated needing caffeine to feel normal every day. Also, I appear to have inherited your GAD--something which caffeine in general never really helped, though I would not say coffee was any more of a culprit than any other caffeinated substance.

  4. "But I have a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)..."

    If they had named it Generalized Anxiety Syndrome you could say you had an attack of GAS and everybody would empathize with you.

  5. I wish I had soothing words of wisdom for you, Mr. Elliott! Smoothies work for me sometimes ..


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