Chronic Illness · Chronic Pain · Eating with Dietary Restrictions · Grad School · Mental Health · Personal · Recovery

Why I Don’t Drink Coffee

When I tell people that I have higher-than-average levels of fatigue, one of the first questions that I end up getting is what I do to manage. One of the most expected answers to that question is how much caffeine goes into me, or many cups of coffee I drink to keep going; it’s something that 64% of American adults drink on a daily basis and those who do drink about 3 cups a day, so it wouldn’t be countercultural to look to a drink for energy. What is unexpected is my answer, especially among my circles of high-achieving, ultra-busy friends and family members:

Zilch. Zero cups.

I only drink caffeine if I need to drive somewhere at a time that’s far outside of my usual sleep cycle. I’m not interested in crashing my car, thank you very much. I don’t drink caffeine to get through readings in grad school; I don’t drink it to be able to stay awake through through dull meetings; I don’t drink it because I like the taste of some of the drinks it’s in.

It’s actually quite a simple decision for me. Even though my life is wildly busy and I have more things to do than I can possibly get done each day, the positives of this daily choice outweigh the negatives by a large margin. Why? Staying caffeine-free helps me:

  • Have fewer, quieter anxious thoughts.

I have a mind that moves more quickly than it can handle, even without caffeine. Having it move even more quickly is disconcerting and that can add to my brain fog, so even if I’m still awake doing an assignment, it’s not going to be high-quality or even productive in general. I would rather do a quick cognitive behavioral therapy exercise or two than grab a cup of coffee because it’s usually my illogical, anxious thoughts rather than a more objective reality that cause me to feel incapable of doing the task at hand without help. Here’s an example of a CBT exercise:

Original thought: I am not going to be able to finish this task, which means that I am a bad student.

Adjusted thought: I will be better equipped to finish it tomorrow once I’ve slept. It won’t be perfect because I’ll have fewer hours to work on it, but it doesn’t need to be perfect to get done. One assignment has no bearing on how good a student I am.

  • Keep a good and stable mood.

We’re not ourselves when we don’t get enough sleep or we’re not taking good care of our emotional, physical, or spiritual health. I’m already emotional and quirky enough as it is; I don’t need sleep deprivation and poor self-care adding to that. It’s easier to assess where I am emotionally if I have a better sense of what’s really going on in my body.

[image description: Sarah, my cousin, in her wedding dress on her big day, holding her bouquet. In front of her, I stand in a bridesmaid’s dress, making a monster face at her with my hands up in an attempted intimidating position. Sarah looks frightened and amused].
  • Pick and choose my priorities intentionally.

I can reliably be awake, out of bed, and productive for about 12-14 hours a day. That’s a lot more hours than I used to have before we got my treatment plans worked out, but it’s still fewer than many of my peers. So, in ways that many of my classmates don’t, I have to be checking in with myself frequently about certain questions. What’s going well? What do I need to change? What and who matter most to me? How do I organize myself and my time to be able to do those things and spend time with those people well? What isn’t giving me joy that I can quit? What needs to be added to bring me peace? I know I can’t have 30 goals each day. I can’t even have 10, necessarily; I usually pick 5. I know that if I get enough sleep, eat well, spend time with Jesus, and exercise, I’m usually pretty unflappable at tackling those 5 tasks. It’s experiences of mastery that show me that I can handle myself with the hours and energy I have.

  • Work with the body I’ve actually got rather than the one I (used to) wish I had.

Caffeine makes my joints hurt more than they normally do and it makes my already tachycardic heart jump beats. My hands shake. As I’ve written, sleep deprivation messes with all of the different parts of my health.

Those are obvious effects, but there are some more insidious and subtle effects that can add up over time and knock me out even more than a high pain day does. When I work with artificial energy, it’s harder for me to see when I’m hitting my walls or, as the Spoon Theory would term it, running out of spoons (energy). If I ignore my body’s first signs that I’m doing too much, I can hit a full-blown crash and burn cycle that takes days to get out of rather than regular levels of exhaustion that I can fix with a single extra-good night of sleep. I want to use the spoons that I have wisely rather than think I have more than I do, run out, and pay for days because of it.

In addition, it’s easier for me to see my red flag behaviors (being irritable, complaining about pain, staying in bed too long, and so on) and change my behavior to be more adaptive before it becomes a full-blown relapse into maladaptive pain behaviors – things that I used to think were helping me deal with pain but were causing me more trouble than they were worth, like using many as-needed medications like narcotics.

So, your next question likely is what do you do instead?

  • Sleep 7.5-8.5 hours a night with good sleep hygiene techniques, which helps me fight the insomnia and poor quality of sleep that can otherwise eat into my next day.
  • Exercise to the point of sweating for 25-45 minutes almost every day (five times a week).
  • Take 250+ steps an hour to keep blood flowing, especially if I notice myself nodding off. If I’m in a meeting or class and can’t leave, I’ll do a few small stretches in my chair or stand up to get a tissue or sharpen my pencil.
  • Get up and stretch frequently, including outside in the fresh air.
  • Take a cool shower.
  • Do things that make me feel alive. 

[image description: me sitting atop a wall with a view of Tallinn, Estonia behind me. Traveling is one of the things that makes me feel alive].
May you find your life full of things that boost your energy. If not, may you have the power to change it in little or big ways.

2 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Drink Coffee

  1. I don’t drink coffee due to liver cysts that are too numerous to count. I have dark chocolate occasionally, so I’m not completely caffeine free. Living with chronic illnesses is a moment by moment decision making process. When I listen to my body and make good choices I get through the day more easily. Moderation is key to living my fullest life.


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