The Perks and Pitfalls of Caffeine: How it Affects Anxiety and Stress

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated December 6, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many of us rely on caffeine to start our day, and coffee is a staple morning beverage for over half of the country. As Time puts it, “There are few things more ritualistic—and to many, more sacred—than a morning cup of joe. 64% of Americans drink at least one cup a day—a statistic that’s barely budged since the ’90s.” But why do so many of us choose to consume a psychoactive substance first thing in the morning? Caffeine works by blocking the chemical adenosine, which promotes sleep. This blockage can lead to a boost in energy, better cognitive performance, and increased alertness. However, caffeine's effects are more complex than they initially seem and can have adverse effects on people who experience anxiety.

Is Caffeine Making Your Anxiety Worse?

Although some research suggests that caffeine has physical health benefits, its effects on mental health are not as well-documented. For those who experience anxiety symptoms, understanding the possible relationship between caffeine and anxiety can be beneficial. Learning about how caffeine can impact anxiety and stress, its effect on cortisol levels, and techniques to moderate caffeine consumption to reduce anxiety symptoms can be practical steps to mitigate anxiety symptoms and reduce caffeine intake. By having a comprehensive understanding of caffeine and its impact on anxiety, we can make informed decisions about caffeine consumption and its impact on our health.

Perks And Pitfalls Of Caffeine

Many individuals rely on caffeine to start their day, whether it's through a hot cup of coffee, tea, or energy drinks. Most people know that caffeine can offer a much-needed energy boost and increase alertness and cognitive performance, which can be particularly helpful during early mornings. For many, caffeine has become a daily staple and helps accomplish daily tasks. With benefits like improved metabolism and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, caffeine can also offer some physical health benefits.

However, caffeine's effects aren't always good, especially for those who experience anxiety symptoms. Adverse side effects like jittery hands, increased heart rates, and digestive problems can make pre-existing anxiety symptoms worse and may even lead to feelings of restlessness and irritability. Caffeine can also disrupt sleep patterns and worsen sleep quality, further exacerbating anxiety symptoms. Understanding the impact of caffeine on anxiety symptoms can be crucial for managing mental health and well-being effectively.

Reducing caffeine intake might seem like an obvious solution, but it's not always that simple, given how deeply ingrained caffeine consumption is in society. Learning techniques to moderate caffeine consumption can be incredibly helpful in reducing anxiety symptoms. Monitoring caffeine intake, reducing it gradually, and switching caffeinated beverages for non-caffeinated options, can all be practical steps. By understanding the perks and pitfalls of caffeine consumption and its impact on anxiety symptoms, individuals can make informed decisions about caffeine intake and take steps to manage mental health effectively.


The Role Of Cortisol in Anxiety And Stress

Cortisol is a hormone that the body produces in response to stress. When stress occurs, the adrenal glands release cortisol to prepare for a "fight or flight" response. Although cortisol is essential for many hormonal functions, ongoing stress and anxiety can cause it to build up in the body, which can negatively impact physical and mental health. For people who experience anxiety, high cortisol levels can make symptoms worse. Individuals with anxiety disorders tend to have higher cortisol levels than those without; higher cortisol levels can cause irritability, exhaustion, and concentration issues. Being mindful of cortisol levels, how they affect the body, and what steps can be taken to reduce them can all be helpful for anyone living with an anxiety disorder.

For those who experience anxiety, it's worth knowing how caffeine consumption can raise cortisol levels and exacerbate anxiety symptoms. Forbes explains the effects of caffeine on the brain, “The effect is twofold: there’s the immediate trigger, and then there’s the longer-term, slower-burn trigger. The second effect is of particular concern because it hangs around for as long as caffeine remains in your system (which is more or less all the time if you’re a daily coffee drinker). Caffeine seems to decrease levels of GABA, the neurotransmitter that helps control anxiety, and it amplifies the effects of our two main stress hormones, cortisol, and epinephrine. Bottom line: anyone with an anxiety condition should sip judiciously and infrequently.” Additionally, caffeine can disrupt sleep patterns, which can make cortisol levels even higher and worsen anxiety symptoms.

Taking steps to manage cortisol levels can be essential for managing anxiety and stress. Caffeine consumption can exacerbate anxiety symptoms, so it's worth being mindful of caffeine intake and practicing stress management techniques to improve mental and physical health.

Techniques For Moderating Caffeine Consumption

Moderating caffeine consumption can be important for maintaining good health and managing anxiety symptoms. Excessive caffeine consumption can cause physical symptoms like jitters, heart palpitations, and digestive issues, which can exacerbate pre-existing anxiety symptoms. For some, consuming caffeine regularly can lead to dependence and possibly even withdrawal symptoms when caffeine is not consumed. Moderating caffeine consumption can help individuals feel more in control of their intake and potentially reduce the negative effects of caffeine on their anxiety. Practicing moderation allows individuals to still enjoy the benefits of caffeine without experiencing the negative side effects. Below are some practical tips that may be helpful for those looking to reduce their caffeine intake:

  • Gradually Reduce Caffeine Consumption - Trying to quit caffeine cold turkey can lead to withdrawal symptoms and make it more challenging to quit altogether. Gradually reducing caffeine intake by cutting back slowly or switching to decaf can make the transition smoother.

  • Monitor Caffeine Intake - It's easy to lose track of how much caffeine is consumed throughout the day. Writing it down or using an app to track caffeine intake can help moderate consumption and identify patterns.

  • Replace Caffeinated Drinks - There are drinks besides coffee that can provide energy and focus without the added caffeine. Green tea is a popular option because it contains a small amount of caffeine while still providing energy. For individuals who want to feel calmer, herbal teas may be a suitable replacement.

  • Practice Stress Management Techniques - Practicing stress management techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or exercise can help reduce an individual’s need for caffeine while also providing a natural energy boost.

  • Seek Professional Help - For individuals with chronic or severe anxiety, seeking professional help may be beneficial for learning to manage cortisol levels and improve their overall well-being. A therapist can help develop a plan for reducing caffeine consumption while managing anxiety symptoms.

Is Caffeine Making Your Anxiety Worse?

Seeking Support Online

Online therapy can be beneficial for individuals interested in learning about how caffeine affects anxiety and stress. It can provide streamlined convenience to mental health support without individuals having to leave the comfort of their homes and offers more flexibility when scheduling appointments. Honest and open discussions with a therapist in a comfortable space can often lead to better communication regarding treatment. For individuals looking to manage their caffeine consumption and anxiety symptoms effectively, online therapy can provide a flexible and convenient option.

One study examined the differences in anxiety outcomes by care modality, including teletherapy, to explore the associations between engagement levels within each care modality and the odds of anxiety symptom improvements. It found “increased odds of anxiety improvement for all care modalities compared to those who did not engage in care, with larger effect sizes for higher utilization within all care modalities. Additionally, there is a promising observation that those engaged in combined care (teletherapy and text-based coaching) had the greatest odds of anxiety improvement.” The study's findings suggest that engaging in online therapy can lead to significant improvements in anxiety symptoms, emphasizing the potential benefits of seeking mental health support online.


Caffeine is a widely accepted psychoactive substance many of us rely on to start the day. However, its effects on mental health, particularly for those with anxiety symptoms, are not as clear-cut as the possible benefits for physical health. Understanding the relationship between caffeine and anxiety, learning how caffeine can impact anxiety and stress, its effect on cortisol levels, and techniques to moderate caffeine consumption to reduce anxiety symptoms can be practical steps to mitigate anxiety symptoms and reduce caffeine intake. By having a comprehensive understanding of caffeine and its impact on anxiety, individuals can make informed decisions about caffeine consumption and its impact on health and well-being.

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