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The Link Between GAD, Nicotine & Caffeine

By Shannon Hyland-Tassava

Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, is a psychological illness characterized by chronic anxiety about many situations and daily activities. The relationship between GAD and substances such as nicotine and caffeine is a complex one. Researchers have noticed a link between anxiety and substance use -- even a substance as seemingly harmless as caffeine -- for years. This isn't surprising; nicotine and caffeine both affect brain chemistry, and brain chemistry influences mood and behavior.

Nicotine and Anxiety

Nicotine and mood are interconnected. According to the Mayo Clinic, nicotine use can cause or worsen anxiety symptoms. At the same time, some smokers seem to use nicotine to manage their stress and anxiety. A study in the journal "Addictive Behaviors," for example, showed that adolescent smokers showed more signs of anxiety than did nonsmokers and also reported that stress made them want to smoke as a way to cope with anxious feelings.

Caffeine and Anxiety

Most people know that caffeine can cause anxiety-like symptoms, including heart palpitations, rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, jittery feelings and insomnia, when consumed in excess. According to Columbia University Health Services, caffeine can also exacerbate an existing anxiety disorder. While giving up caffeine altogether will not cure generalized anxiety disorder -- or any other anxiety disorder -- by itself, it can help improve symptoms.


Of course, giving up nicotine and caffeine is not always easy. Caffeine is widely available in coffee, soda, chocolate and energy drinks and may be hard to escape for some anxiety sufferers. In addition, if you're used to consuming caffeine regularly, you'll likely experience a few withdrawal symptoms upon cutting down, such as headaches and irritability. Nicotine is notoriously addictive and is likely to be harder to give up if you believe it helps you cope with stress and anxiety -- even if brain research indicates the opposite.


If you suffer from generalized anxiety disorder and use nicotine, caffeine or both, consider discussing your use of these substances and your anxiety symptoms with your physician. He can help evaluate how these chemicals affect your brain and your mood, determine if anxiety medication or psychotherapy may be helpful for you and offer guidance regarding the many nicotine dependence treatment options available to you.

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