I practically skip out of bed and straight to the kettle in the morning. Even on weekends, I’m willing to sacrifice the comfort of my toasty bed for the promise of that first hot cup of coffee. I’m most active in the early hours anyway (a morning person, I know, how annoying) and that first caffeine hit transforms me into some kind of terrifying super-tornado, whisking around the apartment and doing all my stuff before 9am is even close.*
*I am then profoundly unproductive for the rest of the day, but that’s by the by.
But let’s backpeddle a bit. Let’s talk about my first ever hit. I started drinking coffee when I was 13 years old. It was February and I was on work experience at a florist (so fun, so cold). The staff (me) would go around periodically and take hot drink orders and then someone (me) would be tasked with boiling the kettle forty times and then handing them out (which is really easy when you’ve been there one day and have no idea which one’s Sandra with the tea-two-sugars and which one’s Barbara with the decaf).
During this exhilarating performance, I learned two things:
1) Coffee wasn’t just black or white.
2) Drinks with ‘milky’ in the title were considered ‘naughty’.
Being 13 and with an appetite for rebellion and things that my mother would disapprove of, I thought to myself, ‘I would like to try a ‘naughty milky coffee’, just like Brenda. That sounds lovely. And whilst I’m at it, I’ll put four sugars in there, because coffee tastes disgusting.’
Who knew?! Who knew that coffee wasn’t just the sour, bitter stench on my teacher’s breath? That it wasn’t something people just pretended to like to look sophisticated at the end of dinner? WHO KNEW that a pint of milk laden with huge quantities of sugar and a sprinkling of instant coffee could taste so good?
Well, now I knew, and there was no going back. The next few years of my adolescence were filled with naughty milky coffee (and considerable weight gain – apparently vast amounts of milk and sugar do not only make your bones grow stronger – damn you Petit Filous) and a feeling of complete sophistication. Many times I would have preferred a giant mug of hot chocolate, but everyone knew that was for babies and coffee was good for you; all the adults drank it and they were doing great.
As I grew older, my knowledge of nutrition and a consciousness of my own appearance grew too, and I eventually cut out the pints of milk and sugar and settled on black coffee or tea with a dash of semi-skimmed. Yet one component of my drink remained unchanged: caffeine. It took me through high school, A-Levels, university and the first few years of working life. It was my go-to for boredom, stress and fatigue. I cradled a cup during catch-ups with friends, all-night revision sessions and looming assignment deadlines. It was my crutch and it saved me.
Now back to the present. I have always considered myself a slightly anxious person (slightly might be an understatement at times). I overthink, I don’t always sleep too well and I get worked up at quite minor events. I assumed that this was a product of becoming a teenager; some wacky shift in hormones that became a permament fixture into adulthood.
Over the past few years I have worked hard on becoming a more rational and level-headed human being; practicing mindfulness, doing yoga and reading inspirational books about living in the present. And all of these things are fantastic. But what if part of the solution was a little closer than I thought?
We all know coffee makes you more alert and less tired. Most of us know that if you drink too much, it can make your heart beat faster, your palms sweaty and give you a cracking headache. Up until a few weeks ago, I was drinking up to ten cups of coffee a day, from first thing in the morning until 6 o’clock at night. My heart was fluttery, I couldn’t sit still and I struggled to sleep. Most annoyingly, instead of being alert and productive, I was distracted and agitated, biting my nails and fidgeting from one task to another, unable to sit still for any length of time.
So I decided to cut down. I started my day with decaf and held off on normal coffee until I made it into work, three hours after I’d woken up. I swapped my mid-morning caffeine for peppermint teas and water, and had my second and final coffee of the day straight after lunch. I drank decaffeinated tea in the afternoons and camomile in the evenings.
I anticipated a struggle. I expected days of blind bumbling through work, missed deadlines and naps at my desk. I didn’t see how I was going to make it to the bus stop in the morning unfuelled, and dreaded the headache of caffeine withdrawal the first few weeks would bring.
The reality was something altogether different. Yes, I was groggy in the mornings. Yes, I walked to the bus stop in a mild fug, yawning as I went. But it was better. Whereas before I had sat on the bus panicking, running through my to-do list over and over, now I sat back in my seat and gazed through the windows sleepily. My first coffee of the morning at work made me alert, attentive and productive, as opposed to tipping me over the edge and sending me into one of my fidgety meltdowns of the past.
I slept better, I felt calmer and my headaches decreased rather than increased. But what I noticed most of all was the change to my thoughts. My mind wasn’t working on overdrive anymore. I was rational, I was able to dull the nerves in my stomach that sprung up when I thought of something unpleasant, or something I had maybe-possibly-perhaps forgotten to do (and that 99% of the time I hadn’t).
It was a revelation to me. I had never even considered the idea that my thoughts could be connected to my caffeine intake. I had hoped to improve the physiological symptoms I knew were linked to my habit, but never in my wildest dreams did I expect this personality transplant.
I found that other people’s opinions didn’t matter so much to me anymore; instead of worrying about what someone thought about my outfit or how I was walking, I breezed along more confidently. Small disagreements didn’t niggle at me for the rest of the day, I was able to just think, ‘Okay, we didn’t see eye-to-eye on that one. Let’s move on.’
I know it sounds far-fetched. I thought so too, until I sat down and really (calmly, finally!) added two and two together. If my body was wired and anxious, of course it would impact on how I was thinking. If my heart was beating faster, no wonder my mind was thundering along at breakneck speed. Our bodies and minds are not independent; my thoughts were playing along in-sync with my body.
I think I had used coffee as a social crutch for a long time. When I was waiting for a lecture or needed a break from a study session, it was my first port of call. It’s something to do with your hands, it makes you look busy and it’s warm and comforting. But as it turns out, decaf coffee, tea or just about anything hot and served in a mug can do this job just as well. And it doesn’t make me feel like the world is against me and my heart is going to explode. Winner.
I doubt I will ever renounce caffeine entirely. There are days now when I don’t have any at all. But reducing my intake to no more than two cups a day has improved my mental wellbeing more than I could have imagined. This might not be the case for everyone; I’m sure most people are a little more clued-up and actually realize that their anxiety could be related to excess caffeine. Unfortunately for me, mild anxiety and coffee had been a part of my life for so long that I was unable to tease apart my personality and my drinking habits.
For the moment, I’m feeling fab and embracing my new, calmer existence. I’ve even taken the time to get creative and paint some rustic coffee pots to hold my decaf range 😉 now it’s just after lunch, so I’m off to make myself a naughty milky coffee – and count down the days until it’s mulled wine season…