I think I may have declared victory against my coffee addiction a liiiittle early (on day 6). It’s now over three weeks since I quit coffee. 23 days to be precise. This morning, sitting in the cafe, the guy next to me receives what I know is a hideous tasting cup of Indonesian swill coffee1, but as soon as I smelled it I felt great sadness and craving. And this is the kind of coffee that in Sydney I would declare to be absolutely undrinkable; a spit back into the cup with look of utter revulsion kind of coffee; a return it to the barrista with extreme prejudice kind of coffee.
None of the literature I’ve read describes any of the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal as lasting for any more than 2 weeks. Mind you, I have been drinking tea, so perhaps it’s been a protracted withdrawal? But there’s no way on earth I’m giving up tea, so just forget about it.
I’ve been feeling decidedly flat and somewhat dysphoric for the last 5 days or so. I’ve been thinking of coffee a lot, and noticing other people drinking coffee a lot. I’ve also been fantasising about a time when I’ll be able to drink it again. Maybe 1 cup a week, on Saturday mornings, although I have to say that I’ve tried that before and was back up to two a day in about 2 weeks.
I’ve recently found about 300 blog ‘articles’ blathering on about “new scientific evidence” that shows that introverted people should quit coffee. Unfortunately, every one of these seems to be based on a single piece of research2 showing that after 2 cups of coffee, introverts performed less well on a quantitative analysis task than did extroverts. From that, the researcher concludes that introverts should not perform quantitative analysis after 2 cups of coffee, which does not seem too long a bow to draw. He also speculates that they might be best avoiding coffee before a high pressure meeting…especially if that meeting involves quantitative analysis. That’s the problem I’ve been talking about with scientific analysis of a subjective experience;3 you can only get little snap-shots of the overall experience, because you generally have to use very narrowly focused experiments to gather hard data.
Having exhausted the available scientific evidence, I can now turn to the more interesting anecdotal ‘evidence’ to find support for my hypothesis that introverts experience more negative consequences from excess caffeine than do others. [‘Evidence’ is in quotes in the previous sentence because anecdotes are not evidence in any real sense; they’re stories.]
Most adults understand that introverts exist. However, a surprisingly high number of extroverted people think that saying someone is introverted, is just a long-winded way of saying that they’re shy. This is incorrect and does little to help introvert/extrovert relations; in fact it perpetuates an equally incorrect stereotype, which is that to an extrovert, anyone who’s not just like them must have some sort of problem. There are fundamental differences between introverts and extroverts when it comes to external stimulation; both in their requirements for it, and in their responses to it.
A good description of the differences comes from Dr. Brian Little at Cambridge University:
Extroverts make up the vast majority of individuals at about 75% of the total population, while introverts make up the other 25%. Dr. Little describes the ruling party of extroverts as in need of constant stimulation in order to lift themselves up to their prime OLA (Optimum Level of Arousal). Introverts have a naturally heightened level of arousal and are generally seeking to lower it.4
Many people think that introverts are shy, but introversion is really not related to shyness at all. It’s related to what we call over-stimulation in the neo-cortex – which means that it’s difficult for an introvert to concentrate when there’s too much stimulation coming in.”5
There are also different types of introverts. There are out-going introverts, at one end of the spectrum, and highly sensitive introverts at the other end. The out-going introvert is perhaps the most misunderstood, because to those who don’t know them very well, they may be pretty well indistinguishable from extroverts. I am an out-going introvert. What that means is that when I choose to, I can make myself appear extroverted. I might choose to do that at a party I can’t avoid attending, at a professional function I can’t avoid attending, or at work in general. The difference between me and an extrovert is that even if I enjoy that social event, and sometimes I do, it’s always work for me to attend it. It drains my energy.
For me and other introverts, group socialising is hard work, and afterwards I require about 3 times as long as I spent socialising to replenish my depleted stores of energy. As I get older I am less and less inclined to bow to social pressures – I’m not interested in fitting in, pleasing or impressing others, or meeting anyone’s expectations. Thus I will simply say no to 90% of the social events I’m invited to. Likewise, spending time making small talk with someone I don’t know well and can tell I don’t want to know well, is equally draining. On the other side of the coin though, deep (generally one on one) conversations with interesting people are invigorating and enlivening.
Highly sensitive introverts however, are a whole different ball game. They often don’t have to option of turning on an extroverted appearance. Here is a checklist of the traits of highly sensitive people (HSP). It’s used to determine if you might be a HSP:6
- I am easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input;
- I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment;
- Other people’s moods affect me;
- I tend to be very sensitive to pain;
- I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days; into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation;
- I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine;
- I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by;
- I have a rich, complex inner life;
- I am made uncomfortable by loud noises;
- I am deeply moved emotionally by the arts or music;
- My nervous system sometimes feels so frazzled that I just have to stay home;
- I am conscientious;
- I startle easily;
- I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time
- When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment I tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating);
- I am annoyed when people try to get me to juggle too many tasks at once;
- I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things;
- I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows;
- I become unpleasantly sensitive when a lot is going on around me;
- Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood;
- Changes in my life shake me up;
- I notice and enjoy beautiful things others walk past;
- I find it unpleasant to have a lot going on in my life at once;
- I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations;
- I am bothered by intense stimuli such as strobing or bright lights at concerts, perfumes, having something sticky on your face;
- When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise;
- When I was a child, my parents or teachers seemed to see me as sensitive or shy.
About 15 to 20% of the total population are HSP’s. And 70% of all HSP’s are introverts.7
What does this have to do with me and my coffee addiction? Well, it appears to me that the more stressed I become, the more HSP traits I display. In a low stress environment, things like a noisy person sitting next to me, or a yapping dog, are not a big deal. When I’m stressed however, trying to make a deadline, write a research paper, or get some technical aspect of my job done, either of these things will drive me totally bats. And so it is with the coffee. At work, particularly if I’m stressed or very busy, coffee seems to make things worse, not better. Coffee seems to intensify my reactions to external stimuli. It makes me jumpy, reduces my tolerance to interruptions, scatters my thoughts, and it appears to heighten my senses, especially to noise and other distractions.
One way to think of a HSP is that they live permanently in flight or flight mode.8 It’s not completely accurate, because while they are highly attuned to their environment, and generally over alert to external stimuli, they are not walking around with continuously elevated heart rate, increased respiration, adrenal glands pumping, and brains full of neurotransmitters and hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. Coffee however, often creates exactly these physical flight or flight responses in their bodies. So for a HSP, coffee is effectively a double whammy. For someone who is not a HSP, coffee gives you a nice little kick. It provides mental acuity, sharper focus and increased awareness. For the HSP however, it often simply creates both mental and physical stress, by kicking them straight into fight or flight mode.
Fight or flight mode has little usefulness in a professional environment, where most people consume much of their coffee. In fact, in a modern society, it rarely has much use at all, unless you’re involved in a street brawl, or an armed robbery. As the name suggests, we become physically and psychologically prepared to either fight or run, and we begin to unconsciously scan our environment for possible threats to our survival. When a person is overwhelmed by excessive stress, life becomes a series of short-term emergencies. The ability to relax and enjoy the moment is lost. Living from crisis to crisis, with no relief in sight, burnout is inevitable.9
Coming back to my anecdotal evidence then. This is how some HSP’s describe their reactions to coffee:
I usually can’t even handle the traces of caffeine found in decaf coffee.10
I am ridiculously sensitive to caffeine. Having one cup of coffee can make me feel terrible for hours and hours.11
I have quit more than once and then start up again, but I do notice a difference in anxiety levels even after one cup. I am really sensitive to it. It isn’t good for us anxious types.12
Highly sensitive introverts find it difficult to consume beverages with large caffeine contents, such as coffee. Personally, I start twitching and shaking with incurring stomach upsets that last for hours.13
My conclusion is that I am far more susceptible to the effects of coffee than most people generally, but especially in a work or social environment that I, as an introvert, find stressful. I believe that generally I am an out-going introvert, but that I exhibit more and more of the traits of a HSP when faced with continual stress e.g. unsuitable job, difficult relationship, financial difficulties etc. This may be controversial, because I can find little supporting evidence for my theory that an introverted individual might display more HSP traits when stressed. Intuitively however it seems logical to me, and that is my experience. Additionally, as a long-term and very consistent user of coffee (min 2 cups a day, max 4, every day, for 25 plus years) I believe that my body had built up a significant physical addiction which caused me to believe that the coffee was helping me cope with stress (by reducing the effects of caffeine withdrawal), when in actual fact, it was significantly adding to my stress levels, by causing my body to physically kick into varying levels of fight or flight mode.
On the up side! This means that in a low stress environment, I should be to able handle and indeed enjoy the occasional cup of coffee, with little or no negative effects or increase in stress levels!! This is a theory that I shall be putting to the test.
- I’m currently on an extended holiday in Indonesia, recovering from burnout and in the process of changing careers. ↩
- By Dr. Brian R. Little; University of Cambridge ↩
- In previous posts in Steve’s Masochistic Coffee Quitting Experiment Series, notably Day 2, and Coffee,Thou Art My Bitch. ↩
- TVB of Canada Inc. ↩
- Cambridge News: Cambridge University psychologist Dr Brian Little on personality, happiness, and why being an introvert doesn’t mean you’re shy. ↩
- I stole these from a check-list on Dr. Elaine Aron’s site The Highly Sensitive Person. It’s a list of traits that belong to highly sensitive people (HSP), and according to her, about 30% of all HSP are extroverts. If you found more than 14 of these traits applicable to you, you are probably a HSP. ↩
- The Highly Sensitive Person; Dr. Elaine Aron. ↩
- Sensitive to Caffeine: It’s my Kryptonite ↩
- The Flight or Fight Response – 5 Minute Stress Mastery ↩
- Psychology Today: Top 10 Survival Tips for the Highly Sensitive Person. ↩
- Sensitive to Caffeine: It’s my Kryptonite ↩
- Daily Strength: Highly Sensitive People Group Discussion; Caffeine ↩
- Sic. Loner Wolf; 15 Ways to Live on Cloud 9 for the Highly Sensitive Introvert ↩