Whenever you need to bring your A-game at work or in life, you may reach for your not-so-secret weapon at your fave coffee house. In a Shape.com poll of 755 readers, nearly half of you admitted to drinking more coffee than usual (up to two cups) when you need to stay alert, focused, and productive. And while the caffeine boost may seem to help combat stress at first, it may also push you to move too fast and too furious (seriously, why are you mad?), which can ultimately sabotage your performance.
When you're feeling lots of pressure to perform mentally or physically, your body begins to produce cortisol, the primary stress hormone. That sounds bad, but cortisol isn't the enemy. We need it to function, especially at times when it's imperative to act quick and be resourceful, which explains why so many Americans may be addicted to being stressed. This probably seems insane, but stress often helps you power through the hardest days at work. Add caffeine to the mix for an extra jolt of energy, and you may feel unstoppable—or perhaps like a runaway train.
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“Caffeine is one of the safer stimulants out there,” says Christopher N. Ochner, PhD, assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. But while a limited amount may help improve concentration, too much of it will wreck your focus. “Unfortunately, any stimulant carries with it the side effect of anxiety, which obviously ruins your concentration,” Ochner explains. “Caffeine in particular can make you jittery, nervous, and worrisome, which can occupy some of your thinking capacity.”
And it doesn't take much to mess with your mental mojo. If you're not used to drinking coffee (or more than your wake-me-up morning cup), as little as two cups can create a real sense of anxiety in some people, says Roberta Lee, M.D., author of The Super Stress Solution and chairwoman of the department of Integrative Medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel. “Caffeine makes people edgy,” she says, “and if you're already an anxious person, it will only add fuel to the fire.”
Odds are if you don't feel like yourself when you're on the java sauce, you're probably right. “Your perception of yourself and others, and how those things relate can be affected, so you may respond to things differently and make assumptions about the world around you,” Ochner says. “You may also be more self-conscious and not have a positive outlook.”
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The irony is, you think being doped up on coffee beans makes you the perfect worker-bee, but really it’s making you the least-popular gal in the office and shortchanging yourself—and not just mentally.
Besides making you high-strung, caffeine may also mess with your body's normal functioning. “Cortisol increases sugar production in the body,” Lee says. “In excess, sugar causes insulin to be released, and when insulin is secreted over a long period of time, it increases inflammation, which is one of the building blocks of chronic disease.”
It also inhibits the absorption of a calming amino acid called adenosine, which signals the brain to lower energy levels and promote sleep, among other functions, hence why it may be harder to get a restful night's sleep on days when you've consumed a lot of caffeine or had a cup too close to bedtime. Additionally, caffeine can prolong the release of cortisol in your system, which can boost inflammation that can lead to weight gain, particularly around the abdomen, Lee adds. So even if you're having zero-calorie black coffee, combining it with an ever-flowing surge of cortisol may inadvertently add inches to your waistline.
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The Smarter Way to Beat Stress and Be Productive
It can be hard to blame coffee for putting you over the edge if you enjoy it so much, but your afternoon vanilla latte might just be a false security blanket. “Reaching for something that you're familiar with, like coffee, provides comfort and a sense of control when you feel like you're losing it,” Ochner explains. Since it may only provide short-term relief while increasing your anxiety, follow these steps to nix nerves and help you perform at your best all day long.
1. Stick to your regular routine. Enjoy your morning cup (or two) of coffee, tea, or whatever caffeine fix you're used to, especially on high-stress days. “If you switch things up to account for stress, you're probably going to make things worse,” Ochner says. “The body gets used to a routine. When you change it, you're going to have a reaction.” So if you usually order a grande Americano, don't ask for a venti just because you have an important presentation.
2. Don't ditch coffee just yet. If you want to wean yourself off caffeine, do it slowly and not the week when you're up for a promotion. Recent research published in the Journal of Caffeine Research confirms what many have known all along: Caffeine is a drug, and getting off it can be ugly. After analyzing “caffeine use disorder” from nine previously published studies on caffeine dependence, researchers found that people who are caffeine-dependent may suffer from withdrawal symptoms such as agitation and anxiety when they don't feed their addiction.
3. Get a good night's rest. When you want to shine the next day, shut your laptop and your eyelids. “If you don't sleep well, you're already behind the eight ball the next morning before you even sip any coffee,” Ochner says.
4. Eat real food. If stress gives you the munchies, do yourself a favor and stay away from sweets, which 17 percent of Shape.com readers said they reached for when frazzled. Instead of going after a sugar high (and crash), opt for foods that will sustain your energy levels, like complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and lean protein.