Coffee, Exercise, and Intrusive Thoughts

Reflecting on the good, the bad, and the downright weird of caffeine-induced headaches.

I have a long and painful history with coffee, including a night where I shared a blow-up mattress with my sister and she woke in the middle of the night to find me silently sobbing and trying to punch the pain out of my head. Yeah, it’s not good.

But last year I noticed that a little caffeine in the early afternoon (12:00pm to 2:30pm) could boost my energy in a way comparable to taking a short nap. Important info when job-hunting and knowing full-well that if you’re scheduled to work in the afternoon it’ll be bye-bye nap-time.

So I ran a little experiment (based on serving sizes at coffee shops) to see the effects of coffee on my energy/mood/productivity/headaches.

The Effects of Standard Coffee Sizes When Drunk in the Early Afternoon

  • 20 oz. had me bouncing off the walls with zero ability to focus. A lot of puttering? got done but — like most puttering — not really helpful in terms of homemaking/self-care/getting work done.
  • 16 oz. had me trapped in my head unable to focus on anything that might be able to pull me out of being trapped in my head. This “trapped in my head” sensation is known in OCD research as pervasive avoidance, you’re so scared you’ll do something wrong (even make a decision) that you don’t do anything whatsoever in order to avoid accidentally causing a disaster from something as mundane as walking across the room.
  • 12 oz. brain was similarly overactive as with the larger amounts of coffee, but I had some ability to focus. Still, difficulty of conscious focusing meant that my OCD took the lead on most of my actions that afternoon.
  • 8 oz. gave me enough energy to be productive all afternoon and then stay up til 11pm (good info to have if planning on hanging out with friends after work), and I was able to maintain a stronger sense of willpower compared to the larger amounts of coffee which meant that more often than not I was the in control as opposed to my OCD.
  • 6 oz. gets me through the afternoon without needing a nap with enough energy for a quiet evening at home and getting to bed by 10pm just like I like.

Basically, this means a 6- or 8-oz. coffee and no more for any given afternoon if I want to remain a semi-functioning human being, and never in the evening if I have any desire to sleep (and sleeping/napping is pretty much my favorite thing so … ).

But I recently adjusted my morning routine to include exercise, and there was a study a while back that a single cup of coffee before you exercise amplifies the effects of your exercise because the caffeine increases the body’s metabolic functions which helps to burn more fat (convert more fat into water and carbon dioxide). Based on my previous coffee testing (and the fact that I’m already a morning person), I figured I’d stick to the 6-oz. cup before my 300 daily kettlebell swings.

The Effects of a 6-oz. Coffee When Drunk Before My Morning Exercise

My thoughts get noisier resulting in my talking to myself more. I generally talk to myself as a way of hearing my own conscious thoughts over the rest of my OCD-backed brain-chatter. So, having drunk coffee, I’m talking in order to focus on one particular thought that — when the timing is right — becomes the basis of my daily blogpost.

I have plenty of energy to get through my morning exercise which also helps to use some of the extra energy bouncing around my system so that it doesn’t drive me nuts when I sit down to do my Morning Writing. I don’t know whether I’m burning more fat than I was prior to adding coffee to my routine. I only just made a spreadsheet/calculator to track body fat and got a bathroom scale to use with it yesterday, both after adding coffee to my routine.

Though I’m also noticing that if I wake up late/tired, that my difficulty concentrating before that morning cup of joe is going to get that little bit more challenging with the addition of caffeine to my system. So I’ll have to add my sleep schedule/prep to the lists of things to be iterated. Because OCD-managements is a 24-hour gig.

The Effects of Coffee on OCD-Management, so far

I mentioned in the list above that too much caffeine can put me into a state of pervasive of avoidance, a kind of compulsive non-behavior. I also mentioned that I have a history of headaches related to drinking coffee (usually late in the day when my body wants to sleep/rest and the caffeine says no). But what exactly is happening to my brain/OCD when I drink coffee?

I have a theory.

With increasing up the body’s metabolic processes, caffeine causes our heart-rate to increase in order to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. Increased energy in the body equals increased energy in the brain. Thing is, an OCD brain already tends to be more energetic in relation to its host body compared to the “norm” of folks’ mind/body energy levels.

This is because the OCD brain is an “overactive” brain. So it generally requires an increased heart-rate to bring oxygen and other nutrients to fuel all that synaptic firing. This includes the synaptic firing resulting in what is known as intrusive thoughts.

You’re probably familiar with the sensation of a seemingly unrelated thought/memory coming out of nowhere to interrupt whatever you were thinking about or doing. For many with OCD these thoughts can appear violent/frightening (I suggest a dream dictionary such as The Complete Book of Dreams and Dreaming to square away whatever info your subconscious is trying to send you).

What may seem less familiar is a sensation of pain accompanying an intrusive thought interrupting everything else in your head to take center stage in your thinking. This is a strange sensation, a quick spike of headache pain at the moment a thought/memory comes seemingly out of nowhere to take your focus.

Now, the brain doesn’t actually have pain/pressure/sensors within the gray matter with which to feel itself. But it does have them in the blood vessels carrying oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to your brain. A sudden spike in the intensity with which blood is delivered to your brain could be your brain pulling on more energy to power the intrusive thought going front-and-center.

At least that’s my thinking. And, if I’m right, that means my caffeine-induced headaches could be my brain becoming truly overactive and putting too much strain on blood vessels to power all that activity.

Makes sense to me, and — based on that theory — managing my energy levels with or without caffeine is going to take a lot more teeny-tiny super-cautious iterations to get just right.

Also published on Medium.