I have previously mentioned how I struggle with generalized anxiety here. When this article was first published, I experienced ambivalent feelings. I felt vulnerable expressing my struggle while simultaneously feeling satisfied for speaking about it. And I believe if more folks are open about their mental health, the stigma surrounding mental illness will ultimately dissipate. Plus, having access to different perspectives will provide us all with diverse approaches to addressing these problems.
The three steps I initially took to alleviate my anxiety (increased exercise, mindfulness, and meditation) are incredible tools and they have become essential to my daily routine. In fact, so much so that I feel myself craving meditation at times! But I have made two additional changes that are worth discussing.
As of February 24, 2020, I haven’t had any caffeine or alcohol!
I have been curious about “detoxing” from these substances for several years. In 2018, I finally did my first “sober October.” I was sober from October 1-October 30th, but the entire month I knew that on Halloween I would be going out with friends for a night of drinking. In other words, the entire month I was just waiting to drink. As for caffeine, I never had the drive to give it up.
But life changes people.
Edmund J. Bourne, PhD, specializes in the treatment of anxiety. In his popular workbook on anxiety and phobias, he offers myriad techniques for relieving anxiety and overcoming stress-related disorders. Mindfulness, meditation, exercise, and nutrition are all central to his approach to overcoming anxiety and becoming your best self. (Somewhat tangential but fun fact: Bourne recommends highly anxious folks to “move towards vegetarianism.”) Further, Bourne discusses the importance of eliminating/reducing caffeine, claiming that some people report their symptoms of anxiety completely disappear after cutting caffeine from their diets. Once I read that, it seemed foolish to continue consuming caffeine.
What happened when I quit caffeine
Now that I am well over a month removed from caffeine, I can positively say that I’m never going back. I switched to decaffeinated coffee beans and haven’t had a second thought. After switching, there was one day at work (before the world shut down due to corona) that I had a headache and was quite tired. I was curious by the physiological reactions I was experiencing so I did some research. Apparently, caffeine constricts blood vessels, so the headache was a result of increased blood flow to my brain. I remember thinking to myself, “What a great reason to have a headache.” I shifted my mindset and viewed the headache as an act of self-care for my brain.
Please don’t let this side effect deter you from trying to move away from caffeine though, because it is completely worth it. There is a wealth of research which indicates that caffeine increases levels of cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is secreted from the adrenal cortex during periods of emotional/mental strain. I’m no expert, but it certainly seems safe to say that if you’re prone to anxiety or under stress in general, caffeine is only going to compound the underlying problems.
Since giving caffeine up, my heart rate is consistently lower throughout the day. (This is super important for folks who are highly reactive and experience heart palpitations when anxious, like me.) I am sleeping great. And I am empowered to not be dependent on any substance.
What happened when I quit alcohol
Bourne’s book indicates that many anxious people tend to turn to alcohol to wind down and ease their worries. That is no surprise, considering the Western world has socialized us all to think that after a long, hard day we “need a drink.” But drinking away our troubles doesn’t work. Rather, it simply perpetuates anxiety because it doesn’t allow the impaired individual to accurately process their feelings. We must acknowledge the validity of our feelings. Our feelings exist for a reason. Being sober has strengthened my mindfulness practice, as it has required a willingness to live unaltered in the moment and deal with my feelings organically.
I’m not sure about abstaining from alcohol for the rest of my life. But having gone this long, I have reevaluated my relationship with alcohol. I cannot imagine drinking weekly, like I used to, and I don’t believe I will ever exceed two drinks in one sitting again. I see this behavior as damaging to both body and mind. And most importantly, I will reserve alcoholic use exclusively for celebrations and good times.
Considering the world is shut down, it seems to me the perfect time to try for yourself. Even if you don’t aim to make any permanent changes, abstaining from caffeine and/or alcohol for a bit might be just what you need during this unprecedented time. If nothing else, challenging yourself is a great reminder of how strong you are.
How do you feel about caffeine and alcohol?!
Also by R.Coker: I Love Yoga. But Here’s Why I’m Glad I Dropped Out Of RYT 200
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Photo: Nathan Dumlao, Mae Mu via Unsplash