Growing Up: Giving up the caffeine, not the ritual

I remember when I started drinking coffee. Being a serious procrastinator in college, I was known to pull an all-nighter fairly regularly. Having a lot of the same freshman classes with my floormates, I would always be the last to start a paper and write best with the crushing deadline looming, often printing the final draft as the sun rose.

In addition to being a procrastinator, I was the rare combination of a hyper-aware procrastinator. So on nights when I would know I would not be sleeping, I would stop by the cafeteria and get a coffee. The adorable “college me” thought that a small, instant French vanilla cappuccino from a machine was coffee, and I thought I was really riding a caffeine high to stay up all night. In fact, it was most likely sugar keeping me awake.

My mother always told me that drinking coffee would stunt my growth, so I wasn’t tempted to drink it regularly growing up – only when I needed it.

Fast-forward to my first job, post-college in the real world. I was in a job that I was passionate about. The only downside was that it had some crazy hours and I started to lean on caffeine to keep me going. I enjoy the taste of coffee, so for me drinking coffee has always been a pleasurable necessity.

Getting coffee became a ritual at the first job. It didn’t hurt that there were a few coffee places nearby. I would take a break and catch up with coworkers, laugh, talk TV and get some vitamin D as we walked to get our fix.

It was, in fact, how I met my roommate and one of my closest friends. He was new to the company and department but was my age. I asked him to join me on my morning trips to get coffee, and each day I learned more and more about him. It was on one of those coffee walks that we both talked about moving out of our parents’ house and decided one coffee break that we should find an apartment and live together.

So that is what coffee is to me: a delightful ritual. Even in a different job now, or on the weekends or traveling someplace new, going and getting a coffee is a treat. While yes, the caffeine is nice, it’s symbolic of me taking time for myself in a very busy and overwhelming world.

As I began this new decade of my life, I did start to notice that I was drinking more and more coffee. Granted, it did take me all day to finish my iced coffee, but I did find myself ordering larger and larger sizes to keep going or so I thought. I started to make the connection that I was more tired the more caffeine I drank. I also realized I was incredibly stressed out with overwhelming, emotional highs and lows, never reaching an equilibrium.

Finding out the science behind this phenomenon, I learned that caffeine consumption triggers the stress hormone cortisol – the fight-or-flight hormone. I made the connection that drinking coffee non-stop was contributing to my increased stress levels. Cortisol coursing through your veins is supposed to be a temporary burst, not a constant. It was making me feel panicked and on high-alert, chronically stressed and at maximum capacity.

So a few months ago, I ditched the caffeine. I still get a small iced decaf coffee when I really want something cold and am craving the taste. It really has made a difference. Life is still stressful, but it doesn’t feel so dramatic without all the additional cortisol pumping constantly. I have achieved a steady balance in terms of my stress level that was not present a year or so ago.

So here I am, 30 years old and a decaf coffee drinker. I used to make fun of people who ordered decaf. But it turns out, I still keep the coffee ritual: I take the break for myself during the busy day and feel better in terms of sleep patterns and stress levels. Older? Check. Wiser? Check.

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