Is it the chemical that we're attached to, or the ritual? Or both?
EC: Is Caffeine Addiction Real?
Credit: Photo by Flickr user John Orford

Every morning, I have the same ritual. I walk out of my bedroom, bleary and pants-less, and boil water for my morning cup of Tetley British Blend with a bit of milk and sugar. It’s a ritual that started before I could even walk. When I was one year old, I fell ill with a cold. Inspired by my British father who had been drinking the stuff his whole life, my mother replaced my morning juice with a sippy-cup of his tea—very milky, sugary tea, so I’d be enticed to drink it and let it soothe my throat. “You held that cup like it was gold,” she told me. From then on, any time she’d try to give me anything but tea in that rounded-bottom sippy cup, I refused to touch it.

And so the addiction began. I became one of the millions of Americans who needs that steaming cup of vice in the morning. But is it really addiction? And if it is, are we truly addicted to the caffeine in our mugs, or is it the ritual we crave?

“There is a different way to understand caffeine addiction versus an assumption of only substance versus ritual addiction,” Kent B. Provost, PhD of the College of Counseling, Psychology, & Social Sciences in Argosy University, told me. “Differing understandings of caffeine addiction—if someone is actually addicted—would be chemical addiction, psychological addiction, and habitual addiction.”

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Credit: Photo by flicker User Elihid B

We say we “need” our cup of coffee (or, in my case, tea), but actual, legitimate caffeine addiction often has obvious physical cues. “The signs for chemical addiction would be more noticeable if the individual chose to stop drinking,” Provost said. “These withdrawal signs could include headaches, marked fatigue or drowsiness, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbance, and even depression.”

Even if coffee does help us wake up in the morning, it’s not necessarily the caffeine that does all the heavy lifting. “What I've seen with myself and many clients is that when they try to go off coffee by, say, taking caffeine pills in the morning to wake up, it doesn't have the same effect as coffee,” board-certified nutrition specialist Jason Boehm said. “Partly, that’s because coffee has other compounds like theobromine, which creates a similar effect as caffeine. In other words, it's not just the caffeine that provides that jolt.”

However, even if coffee does provide a burst of energy, it may not be as cut-and-dry as a chemical reaction. “The ritual of having coffee or tea in the morning and its resulting effect psychologically plays into that habit,” Boehm continued. “Years of tasting coffee first thing in the morning triggers your brain to associate that with ‘wake up.’”

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Credit: Photo by flicker User Elihid B

For some of us, there’s also a social component to our cup of joe. “Many people find having their morning coffee, really equates to going to a coffee house and socializing with others,” Provost added. “It is not uncommon to see employees gathering in the workplace kitchen, to going in groups to a coffee dispensary establishment as their break from work and to catch up with each other about their lives.”

In this way, Provost continued, we could be connecting our coffee and tea with relaxation—an unconscious way to “get out” and “take a break from daily rudimentary tasks.”

It’s certainly possible to have a caffeine addiction, but many of us simply crave the ritual—the smell in the morning, holding a warm mug close to us, watching the steam swirl up into the air. The feeling of enjoying a cup of coffee with a loved one as you smile over the rim. A moment in the morning when everything is stable, because during hard times, our morning cup can be the only stable thing in life.

So every morning, I make my cup of tea. Yes, I need it. Yes, I crave it. But perhaps what I really need isn’t the caffeine from my tea, but the reminder of home.