Getting through Caffeine Withdrawal

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You’d think something as common in our diets as caffeine would be completely harmless. But until you try to give it up, you won’t know just how difficult it can be. There’s no doubt caffeine is addictive – not in the “gotta get me some heroin” way, but there is definitely a physical withdrawal when you try to quit. Here’s how to get through it.

Remind yourself why

Higher motivation is the most important factor in quitting any unwanted behavior. In study after study, success with even the strongest addictions can be linked to motivation. You can build the right momentum by understanding your reasons for quitting before you stop.

You probably have your own reasons (mine was the bogus “energy” curve, the ups and downs linked to coffee), but it helps to read a bit about why caffeine is a nasty habit. There are plenty of good resources--here’s one: “10 reasons to quit your coffee.

When you get withdrawal symptoms, this list of reasons is going to get you past the second thoughts. It’s really no different than preparing for any unwelcome task you know you have to do.

Prepare for the worst

Call it a mental trick if you like, but going over all the withdrawal symptoms will help keep you from worrying when they happen. Chances are you won’t suffer all of these, and those you do won’t really be that bad. People quit caffeine every day for a variety of reasons. They did it; you can, too.

Symptoms of caffeine withdrawal

      Tension headaches are one of the most common features of caffeine withdrawal. As many as half of those who stop the drug report at least a headache. These come on in 12 to 24 hours. Headache remedies work, and so does sleep. The good news is that these headaches pass after a day or two without caffeine. There’s one trap to avoid – don’t take a headache medicine with caffeine in it! Caffeine is a common ingredient in over-the-counter headache remedies, like Excedrin, so read the label first.

      Decreased mental ability is noticed by about 10% of people, usually those whose intake is in the high range (500 mg or more a day) and those who use coffee in a high-functioning environment. The technical term is cognitive impairment, but the effect is short-lived (only a couple of days). If you are concerned about this, stop your coffee intake the first day of a holiday weekend.

      Depression and irritability is very common but isn’t thought to come from the lack of caffeine directly. It’s believed that the sleep disturbances that come with caffeine withdrawal, along with any headache, makes some people prone to depression and irritability. On the upside, there’s a payoff after withdrawal is complete (a week or so) in a generally better mood and more restful sleep.

      Fatigue and other symptoms like nausea and muscle stiffness can occur but are generally very transient. Some will suffer flu-like symptoms and even get a mild fever. Unlike the flu, however, symptoms pass within a day or so.

How to lessen withdrawal symptoms

With a little discipline, even the relatively mild withdrawal symptoms above can be avoided. All you have to do is gradually cut back caffeine intake over the course of a couple of weeks.

Here are a few ways to cut back, but write down your schedule and stick to it. Don’t play the game of increasing your consumption to feel “up” for some reason. Your goal should be to cut it out altogether – stay with that goal.

Start by cutting back on your favorite form of caffeine, a single cup of coffee skipped or a few sodas switched to caffeine free. Do that twice over the course of a few days and then celebrate your success so far. If you get any withdrawal symptoms, wait till they fade before making the next reduction.

Next, look at cutting the caffeine in the beverages you like. For most, this means drinking decaffeinated coffee or making a much weaker tea than normal. Feel free to try substitutes for other products (non-caffeinated versions). It takes a week or so to change taste preferences, but it’s not really that hard.

Finally, once you’ve cut back considerably, go cold turkey when you have a couple of stress-free days, days when you could take a nap if you felt like it. Tell other people you are stopping caffeine and find someone else who has done so. This last tip gives an element of “social proof” that will help sustain your decision.

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