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The Great Coffee Debate: Chilling You Out or Making You Crazy?

This seems pretty obvious, right? I mean, what’s the debate here? We all know that coffee contains stimulating caffeine, which, in large doses, makes our blood pressure skyrocket, revving us up and keeping us in a cycle of wakeful nights ahead. The answer is: making you crazy.

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We know about the chemical and biological reactions to our favourite morning beverage, but have we stopped to consider the emotional benefits yummy coffee has to offer?

Why do we reach for coffee when we’re already feeling stressed? Does it actually chill us out, or is it exacerbating our freakiness? With International Coffee Day being celebrated October 1st, we thought we’d take a look at how our chocolate-coloured liquid morning triple-shot-half-sweet-no-whip-180-degree-with-sprinkles beverage makes us crazy – or completely relaxes us.

Argument: Making Us Crazy

The caffeine found in coffee can increase our cortisol, or stress hormone levels. So if we consume too much, we’re actually contributing to the crazy instead of relieving it! Caffeine also temporarily boosts our adrenaline, giving us that rush we need, but may make us even more tired once the effect wears off, leading us to drink more, starting up a cycle of overuse.

A healthy daily amount of caffeine will depend on your weight, but a good amount to aim for is about 300-400mg per day, which, according to Caffeine Informer, is about 5 Red Bulls or 1 brewed Starbucks Venti coffee. Going beyond our own daily limit can lead to problems sleeping, low moods when the caffeine wears off and even a physical dependency over time, leading to more stress.

Most of us delight in downing multiple cups of coffee, tea or soda throughout the day, and if we’re feeling stressed, it’s natural to assume we haven’t had enough caffeine to properly function. While caffeine can be your friend in small doses, drinking too much can really add to your stress, rather than relieve it. We may forget that caffeine is a drug - and like most drugs, can have short-term bonuses, but long-term downsides.

Ever wondered exactly how caffeine wakes you up? Caffeine molecules look very much like adenosine to your brain cells. Adenosine, an important natural hormone that tells us when we’re tired, has a cycle that lets it build up throughout the day and decline as we sleep, which helps us to wake up again.

When we consume caffeine, it binds to the adenosine receptors in our brain, kicking out the tiredness hormone and telling us we feel more awake. This works for a while, but over time, feisty adenosine wants to get back to work, so our bodies create more receptors for it. The regular amount of caffeine just doesn’t cut it anymore, so you need more and more to feel alert. See where this is going?

Argument: Chilling Us Out

Consider this argument from a psychosomatic point of view – strangely, marketing continues to display drinking a cup of coffee as a calming, relaxing experience. As a child of the 80s, I remember a swathe of commercials showing a lovely couple on a date, or a fresh-faced youth gratefully taking in a long sniff of joe on her balcony, while still in her pyjamas. None of these ads showed people running around on pure adrenaline, frantically tossing coffee back and crushing the cups in their hands because they’re completely jacked up on caffeine. It may not be such a stretch to argue that the act of drinking coffee can have a calming effect on us. (Have we been brainwashed or programmed - in a non-culty kind of way?)

I don’t know about you, but when stress punches me in the face, I go straight for a cup of the good stuff. A few of those deep breaths as I make my way out of the office to the nearest coffee bar are enough to make my blood stop boiling and by the time I make it to the kind, supportive barista, I’ve forgotten about my 18-page report on Health & Safety and I’m envisioning myself on my balcony, blissfully enjoying a quiet moment with my coffee.

Depending on your routine, the act of grabbing a coffee (in this scenario, it doesn’t much matter what kind of beverage you’re getting, but let’s stick to coffee) covers a lot of bases when it comes to draining our stress. We know that physically removing ourselves from the stressful person or situation can serve to decrease our reaction much more quickly than if we stick around and keep letting Director Bill give us stink eye and try to throw us under the bus again.

Things That Make Stress Dissipate:

  • Taking an intentional break
  • Getting outside – fresh air
  • Soothing scents and atmosphere
  • Calling up happy memories

Never underestimate the power of smell. It’s no surprise that most of the tantalizing cafes, bakeries, and joe shops also offer delectable pastries. We know it’s coming before we even see it!

There’s an entire industry dedicated to the science of scent marketing, so it shouldn’t surprise us that we associate such happiness to our local café - turns out, our noses are like teenage break-ups - zero rationality – all emotion. Our olfactory and amygdala (smell and memory centres, respectively.) are quite connected, which accounts for our emotional response to scent. According to this Huffington Post article, the smell of vanilla can elevate our mood, making us feel happier. No wonder we feel so cheerful when we walk into our café - our memories are so strongly linked to smell, we likely associate the scent of fresh baked goods with a warm and cozy Grandma kitchen, a birthday cake, or getting ready for a beloved holiday with a house full of food. Feeling relaxed yet?

Psychology Today also reminds us that coffee has a similar effect on our brains as cocaine. Coffee triggers the release of that pleasure-giving neurotransmitter, dopamine, meaning every time we drink it, we feel the satisfaction of happiness – we got exactly what we needed. Then next time we’re feeling low, we look for more coffee to get the same effect…


Have we come to a conclusion? What do you think? Are you still firmly on the side of ‘making us crazy,’ or are you leaning towards ‘chilling us out?’ Maybe the real question is around what kind of relationship we have with this delicious brown drink - the practice we connect to coffee. Coffee itself may not wipe the stress off our faces, but it sure can make us stop for a moment to smell the roses and that’s certainly a step in the right direction!

Another consideration is how much are you drinking? Whether you hate to love it or love to hate it, coffee isn’t going anywhere, so it’s worth delving into. Just like that song you can’t get out of your head, it has the capability to make you feel gross if you overindulge, but can be delightful and rejuvenating if you get just enough. If you can find the balance, please share your wisdom with the rest of us!

Sarah McCullough

Sarah McCullough

Sarah focuses on stress management, healthy sleep, and how interior design and colour contribute to relaxing environments. By day, Sarah works in Human Resources, eagerly absorbing knowledge about the human psyche and why we behave and interact the way we do. Sarah started her career journey with a single year... Read More

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