Dear Socially Anxious: Put Down That Cup Of Joe


I am a big coffee drinker. The moment I wake up my mouth is already watering thinking about a sweet, creamy, strong cup of joe. I’ve been told and read, many times that coffee is bad for people with anxiety but I never understood why, so I just took it as a suggestion. Also, my anxiety can be variable and most days if I don’t have a trigger, for me that might be something as simple as interacting with someone I don’t know well, I dont feel particulary anxious and am mostly baseline. My baseline is slightly anxious but I’m used to it.

Anyway, I started doing some reading and it completely changed my perspective. I’m reading a book about happiness that likens our subconscious to a wild elephant with our conscious minds on top as the rider trying to control it. The elephant, he says, is a product of evolution and reacts to situations without our conscious mind registering it. When we see something that upsets the elephant, it can color our reality.

He boils this down to like or dislike reaction. When we perceive something that in the past threatened us, we react before we are conscious we are even having a reaction. This is because a part of the brain called the Amygdala monitors incoming information and before the more intelligent part of the brain can process there is no threat, excites our fight or flight mechanism. One example would be seeing a rubber snake on the ground. Initially, if you dislike snakes, your heart rate would shoot up and you would be ready to run before the rational part of your mind realized it wasnt a real snake.

The author says the dislike mechanism is so powerful and overwhelming because early in our history being aware of and able to react quickly to threats meant survival.

My curiosity was piqued when I learned about the Amygdala and it’s function and I started to wonder if coffee affected it and surprise, there is a possibility it does. In a study done, it was found that caffeine increased activity in the Amygdala especially when shown angry faces and assessed them as threats more than those who did not have caffeine. What this means is the Amygdala processed these faces as threats and caused more anxiety than they would without the caffeine consumption. As someone who is already socially anxious and sees threats in social situations where there may be none present, it would probably not be beneficial to increase that threat assessment and anxiety by drinking coffee.

So if you are socially anxious, put down that cup of coffee, it is most likely making things worse for you.

The study I referenced can be read here.

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