Some quick disclaimers before I start this one.
First of all: this is not new and out of the box thinking. The idea has been around for a while but at least any writeup I’ve seen doesn’t seem to really touch on the benefits of coffee when you’re dealing with social anxiety.
Secondly: you’ll pry my coffee mug out of my cold, dead hands.
So, the common line we hear:
For many, caffeine improves feelings of well-being and improves mood as it increases the levels of dopamine in your brain; however, this is a temporary effect. For some people, caffeine can increase anxiety. Research has shown that people with anxiety disorders may have increased sensitivity to caffeine.
L. Kevin Chapman is a clinical psychologist in Louisville, Kentucky, who specializes in anxiety disorders.
“Caffeine acts as a stimulant and mimics the physical symptoms associated with anxiety, such as heart palpitations, restlessness, chest tightness, hot flushes and other symptoms,” Chapman says. Bhatia adds that substances like caffeine may biologically influence anxiety by their action on certain receptors and neurotransmitters in the brain. “Caffeine acts in the brain via various mechanisms. Some of these mechanisms have been implicated in triggering, exacerbating or maintaining anxiety. Caffeine can influence the neuroendocrine stress response system via its effects on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and stress hormone in the body,” she explains. In other words, this means that caffeine can trigger one of the biomechanisms that leads to the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which activates the flight-or-fight response that causes anxiety-like symptoms.
There are also studies which suggest insomnia (and a general lack of sleep) can be a risk factor for developing different forms of anxiety and I know I’m not the only one here who has used a coffee or two when sitting up late one night.
On surface level – this is all bad. Caffeine is the devil and the cause of all our problems.
So, conventional wisdom would kind of suggest we should be laying down that coffee mug.
On the other hand, there’s certainly an argument to suggest that caffeine can be a great tool in dealing with SA when used properly.
We don’t get a lot of studies when it comes to social anxiety so sometimes we have to lean fairly heavily on anecdotal evidence but in this case, I’m able to lean on my own past experience as well.
There’s a lot of talk about leaning on alcohol as a crutch in social situations. It can make it easier to talk to people and get outside of your head a bit – but caffeine can do the same thing to a certain extent.
Many people (myself included) feel more alert and aware after a coffee. That’s kind of the whole point. It can improve your mood and alertness – which makes it a lot easier to carry a conversation.
Caffeine helps the brain release dopamine into the prefrontal cortex, a brain area important for mood regulation. Caffeine may also help the storage of dopamine in the amygdala, another part of the brain important for anxiety regulation.
In short, I wouldn’t write it off completely. Maybe avoid drinking too much of it and switch to decaf later in the day so you’re not messing with your sleep schedule.
If you’ve had your coffee and you’re still looking for a way to work on your social skills I’d suggest the How to Talk to Anyone audiobook, free with an Amazon Audible trial. Or the Shy to Social workbook.