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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

How Mindfulness Can Beat Coffee Addiction

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I've been a big coffee drinker most of my life. In fact, I can say my relationship to coffee was (is) an addiction. I couldn't go a day without it. My early morning ritual centered upon it and even when I traveled I figured out my coffee situation well in advance. So as with many addictions, I attempted to stop many times and would suffer through withdrawal headaches for a week or so then relapse again.

It's not that I am against coffee. In fact there are emerging health benefits to it in terms of warding off Alzheimer's. But for me, coffee had become unhealthy. The caffeine load would boost me up in the early morning from a sleep that had been too short. It's effects made me jumpy, shaky and in a perpetual "jacked up" state.

Three months ago my friend and I did a nine-day cleanse consisting of only vegetables and fruits -- without caffeine, sugar, alcohol or animal products -- and I was off coffee again.

This last time, I was less adamant -- less suppressing -- of my thoughts. Normally when I would stop coffee my mind would be consumed with the thought "I'm not going to drink coffee again." Science has shown that suppression of thought often has the reverse effect (we end up doing whatever we are suppressing even more). A much more effective strategy is to alter the thought, for example, "coffee makes me very jittery so I'll skip it for now." Yet an even better strategy is to adopt what's called a meta-cognitive stance toward your thought. "I see myself having a thought about needing coffee." (This stance is part of mindfulness where you observe your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations as if you were an explorer or naturalist of the mind -- with a stance of open curiosity.)

Although I've practiced mindfulness for eight years now, I really never thought it could break my coffee addiction. But three months later, I am coffee free and I do attribute that success to mindfulness. This last time of stopping coffee was quite different than before. This time I began to notice how my cravings came and went and returned and departed. I noticed their variability. I noticed how herbal (non-caffeinated) tea -- although different -- could meet some of the ritual qualities coffee had provided (warm cup in the morning, etc). I noticed Starbucks could still be a destination point on my morning walk with my husband (he for his latte, me for my tea). My relationship to coffee changed.

Our relationships to things and people change all the time. When I first met coffee (yes it was a bit like a love affair) I had to force myself to like it (my friends all drank coffee so I wanted to as well). Then I used coffee to help me through graduate school and building my career, then staying awake with too little sleep with three kids, motherhood and a full-time career. But in my 40s coffee began to control me more than I it, and my relationship became one of addiction. With reflection, I can now see how much my relationship with coffee changed over time, and now it had changed again.

I'm finding that the coffee cravings have faded. I'm now as content with herbal tea as I was with coffee.

Three months might be sufficient to say I've broken the coffee habit, but as with any addiction, I'll just take it one day at a time.

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