Reflections on Anxiety Attacks and (Mostly) Quitting Caffeine

It’s been about nine years that I’ve been suffering from periodic anxiety attacks. Apparently, many third-culture kids experience some kind of health or mental health collapse in their mid-twenties, which some researchers in the TCK counseling community are saying is due to years of unprocessed grief and the built up stress of so many goodbyes, transitions, and losses. In my case, this pattern fits my story almost too well. I literally collapsed one morning as a 25-year-old while doing an evangelism training, passing out just a couple minutes after I had taken the stage. This started a long pattern of anxiety attacks connected to speaking in public and eventually, to anxiety attacks in many kinds of high pressure conversations.

It’s been a long road trying to pursue healing from this struggle. Certain years have been better than others. I’ve learned to recognize the occurrence or even the hints of the beginnings of these attacks as a warning light of sorts – a signal that I am pushing beyond my God-given limits in unwise ways. I’ve also been learning of the importance of digging into my story to better understand why things like conflict conversations and the possibility of public humiliation are so terrifying to my sympathetic nervous system, the part responsible for our fight, flight, or freeze emergency responses. These things always have a context. And we often can’t skillfully apply gospel truth to our deepest struggles unless we understand that context.

2021 was very stressful year for our family. Unexpected leadership transitions on the field meant some major reshuffling was needed in order to stabilize two of our teams. It also meant that another move was needed for our family, causing us to pack up our house in the desert city we were serving and to move back into the mountains, to the city where we had spent our first term. As is the case with most leadership transitions, there was some pretty serious conflict which ensued during this season on top of everything else. By the fall of 2021 I was in a pretty weak place, finding even doing public introductions to be an exhausting battle.

We were attending some training in the US and one of the trainers was also a trauma counselor who offered to meet with any of us that needed it. My wife and I quickly signed up for a slot, particularly wanting some insight into our struggles with anxiety. I described my long-term struggle with the counselor, and was met with a surprising response.

“First thing I would tell you is this: No caffeine or sugar for forty days, lots of water, lots of celery. We need to flush all that cortisol out and after that see what kind of effect that has.”

“Really?” I responded, “You think coffee could be affecting my anxiety?”

“How many cups do you drink a day?”

“Three or four.”

The counselor raised his eyebrows and gave me a “You should be able to put the pieces together here” look. Apparently, caffeine can interact significantly with cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, and make struggles like anxiety much worse. I thought back to the season when my anxiety attacks had started. Sure enough, in those years I transitioned from a free social drinker of chai and coffee into a lifestyle that was dependent on several cups of strong coffee a day. It was easy to do, given the fantastic coffee scene of Louisville, Kentucky. Many a ministry meeting took place in award-winning coffee shops like Sunergos and Quills. Much dark chai was drunk and spilled with our Middle Eastern refugee friends. I’m also not a very big guy, thinly built and weighing in at an average of 150 pounds/68 kilos. It makes sense that body type would also impact caffeine’s affect on the nerves. This is made worse if, like me in that season, one is not exercising regularly and in general ignoring that they are an embodied being with limits.

This bit about caffeine was one of the more practical pieces of counsel I had received, and I excitedly decided to start right away. The next day of the intense training I abstained from all coffee and sugar – and suffered an awful migraine. Right, I thought to myself, better figure out a way to do this gradually. I found a plan to cut caffeine out by a quarter of a cup every three days and proceeded at that pace, thankfully migraine-free. After several weeks I found myself spending entire days without any caffeine, and ready to see if it was actually going to help.

The short answer is yes, it helped tremendously. While I never got as serious about the no-sugar or lots of celery parts, the no-caffeine advice proved to make a dramatic reduction in my anxiety. It’s not that anxiety stopped surfacing, it’s that it was much less likely to tip over into the cold-sensations-up-the-back-of-the-head, heart-pounding, language-blurring, head fog arena of anxiety attacks. This bought me more room to focus on relevant truth vs. lies in situations where I was feeling anxious. It also eventually meant anxiety was no longer so close to the surface, right up in my throat as it were. There was more margin to endure hard things before the the anxiety started.

I was also surprised by how my body’s energy levels adjusted. It was as if if the high peaks and deep ravines of energy in my caffeine-infused days gave way to much more gentle hills and shallow valleys. Sure, I wasn’t feeling the same kind of creative, energized high that I would get after a good homemade pour-over – or if I was out in the bazaar, a punch-you-in-the-face bitter Central Asian Americano. But the upside was less crushing fatigue. Energy was more balanced all around. I also started sleeping better. And waking up was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be.

I was worried about the gut effects of quitting coffee, since I’ve found it so helpful over the years as a way to supplement my weak stomach – something I learned from missionaries in China. A good cup of black coffee meant I could eat a greasy kabab in the bazaar and on a good day not suffer the consequences. But turns out decaf is almost as good as caffeinated coffee for providing these kinds of medicinal benefits. And yes, thankfully we live in a day where good decaf does indeed exist. I’ve enjoyed the aptly titled No Fun Jo for any who might be curious.

My Western and Central Asian friends responded in shock when I told them I was quitting caffeine. “Every time I see you, you have a caffeinated drink in your hand,” was how one colleague put it. Some openly doubted that I could do it, which provided some helpful challenge motivation when I was freshly mourning the loss of my delicious dark beverage. I was, however, never able to completely quit all caffeine entirely. I still lived in Central Asia, which meant that periodically I was honor-bound to drink that cup of thick black chai for the sake of my host. But for the most part I went a full nine months with almost no caffeine before I started experimenting with carefully adding some back in.

Truth be told, I missed the creativity and motivation boost that came from a good cup of coffee. For knocking out some needed admin work or writing up another blog post, there is something good and helpful about a healthy dose of caffeine. I think this is likely why God has given us so much caffeine in so many different kinds of plants and drinks around world. It’s a good gift for workers and creators, when it can be used wisely. While in Central Asia, this meant in the last six months I’ve gotten back to having one cup in the late morning or midday. Here in the US, with this country’s early morning culture and increased coffee options, I’ve been enjoying a half-caf* mid morning and another one midday. So far this has not seemed to have any negative impact on my anxiety.

On the spiritual side, it has been good to experience coffee again as something which can serve and equip, rather than something which I am bound to. “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything'” (1 Cor 6:12). This time around, I hope to better navigate my use of caffeine such that I don’t have to become so dependent on it again. Even if I didn’t have the anxiety attacks, it would have been beneficial to fast from caffeine for a season for the sake of rightly-ordered affections.

What about public speaking and conflict conversations that previously led to anxiety attacks? Over the past year I have noticed a significant increase in my resilience in these settings. While not completely free of the initial waves of panic, in many of these challenging settings I’ve been able roll these waves of fear back and carry on with a high degree of freedom. Even conversations where I have been under attack and several high pressure public speaking situations have gone well. I don’t doubt that the counseling, journaling, prayer, exercise, and other aspects of pursuing healing in this area are also proving helpful. But the most immediate and dramatic change in my struggles with anxiety came from this very earthy kind of spirituality – that of quitting caffeine.

We are such complex creatures, with the body, the soul, and the mind intermingling in mysterious and surprising ways. We need to be careful that we are not so spiritually-minded that we miss the importance of the body when it comes to areas of deep struggle in our lives. Paul tells Timothy to no longer drink only water, but to drink it mixed with wine for the sake of his stomach (1 Tim 5:23). Wise Christian leaders have said that sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is take a nap. For me, it was an act of practical spirituality to cut caffeine for a good long season.

I likely still have a long road ahead of me regarding battling anxiety – an area in which physical suffering and spiritual sin can overlap in confounding ways. Anxiety can be entered into as an act of sinful distrust in God’s provision. Anxiety attacks, however, seem to fall much more in the realm of suffering, when an experience of past suffering gets stuck in our bodies, reemerging to hijack us in situations which one part of the mind reads as dangerous. But whether suffering or sin, I rejoice that complete freedom is one day coming. In the resurrection we will only know courage, love, and freedom, and anxiety will be a distant memory. The coffee will be flowing, and we will drink it in perfect self-control and freedom.

So I sip my second and last half-caf of the day, and believe again that day is coming.

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

*A half-caf is a simply half caffeinated coffee and half decaf. It provides a gentler boost than a full cup, which can be helpful if the drinker is more sensitive to caffeine’s effects.

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