There's no denying that your first cup of coffee every morning gives you an energy boost and mental clarity. At the same time, long-time coffee drinkers are aware of their dependence on a cup of joe.
Drinking too much coffee may trigger anxiety because it promotes the release of cortisol, the stress hormone. Coffee contains caffeine that increases cortisol, the hormone responsible for triggering a stress response in the body.
In some individuals, a stress response is associated with anxiety and panic. It can even cause other unpleasant states like mood swings and ruminations.
During the study, researchers discovered that putting volunteers in scenarios that force them to think about coffee, such as being instructed to brainstorm names for a new coffee brand, stimulated physiological arousal in the body. This also changed the way the volunteers think and feel.
Thinking about coffee allowed the participants to enjoy the focus-enhancing effects of coffee without having to drink the beverage. The scientists explained that this heightened arousal allowed participants to see the world with more specificity and detail.
But how exactly can thinking about coffee or smelling it make you mentally sharper?
The researchers posited that the effect was possible because most Americans “associate coffee with productivity and alertness.” This connection could have a priming effect; wherein one idea triggers others because of associations that you're familiar with.
Sam Maglio, a study co-author and associate professor at the University of Toronto, said that triggering this initial idea about coffee results in other changes. For example, thinking about coffee boosts mental acuity.
The researchers also discovered that it increased the volunteers' heart rates. Maglio added that these changes in the body could be responsible for the changes they observed in the participants' behaviors, such as “expecting that things would happen sooner and seeing the world through a more detailed, specific lens.”
This isn't the first study to suggest that you can enhance your mental alertness without drinking coffee. In a 2018 study, researchers discovered that the smell of coffee alone could boost a person's analytical reasoning skills.
For this study, undergraduate students were exposed to an ambient coffee aroma. They then scored higher on a set of 10 algebra problems, unlike the other students who weren't exposed to the scent. (Related: The scent of health and happiness: Why you should start smelling your coffee.)
In a different study from 2008, scientists reported that sleep-deprived rats who smelled coffee “had genes activated in their brains that eased fatigue-related stress.”
While researchers are still trying to determine how smelling or thinking about coffee can boost your mental focus, here are some alternatives that won't aggravate your anxiety.
If you're looking for a caffeine-free alternative to coffee, consider drinking other calming beverages such as chamomile or green tea.