Stress and Loss—and the Role of Tea

Life . . .

I was going to get caught up, get organized, be in control.

But life intervened, as it so often does. Not a light or joyful moment to bring a smile and generate energy.

No, this was more a derailment. Of plans, of hopes, of optimism.


Death does that. And because we can’t quite comprehend our loss—it comes to us in degrees, often in unexpected ways—societally we have developed rituals to ease our way.

In our case, this involved flowers, as beautiful and ephemeral as life itself. Lovingly provided meals. And cards and texts and phone calls and kind words.

And during the funeral visitation, coffee and tea, available at all times.

Dealing with the pain

Which later, in retrospect—in perhaps an excuse to focus on the mundane and avoid the profound, or just as a way to ponder those things that comfort a bit—made me wonder: why hot coffee and tea? Why have we chosen this avenue to address grief?

Of course, personal interactions are foremost. Nothing replaces caring words, deep sympathy, hugs, genuine concern. But still, coffee and tea are often among the first things we offer to those who sit in a hospital waiting room or to the family that sits around a table and begins to face a deep loss.

It seems that handing a warm drink to someone is more than simply a symbol of our care. Holding a hot beverage seems to have an actual effect on us—we project the warmth of what we are holding to other people and situations, transferring physical sensations to the psychological.

Drinking hot liquids, especially those with caffeine, impacts us on multiple levels. Research has shown that consuming hot beverages—coffee, tea, or just water—makes us happier. Adding caffeine to that beverage lowers our anxiety, also makes us happier, and gives us more energy. Caffeine works immediately, and even small doses can impact us.

If a beverage’s warm temperature and caffeine somehow improve our outlook, does that, perhaps, help assuage our pain just a bit, or at least help us cope?

Tea, a balm for body and soul

 tea in a styrofoam cupTea is a bit more complicated than coffee or hot water, and scientists continue to tease out what does what. We know that the amino acid theanine increases alpha wave brain activity, which relaxes us, and that the main flavanol in tea, epigallocatechin gallate, is sedating. According to one double-blind study (Steptoe 2007), drinking tea for six weeks resulted in less post-stress cortisol (the “stress hormone,” released whenever we experience fear or something stressful), a personal feeling of being more relaxed, and less platelet activation (which is good for cardiac health).

Although drinking tea does not reduce stress, it seems to help us to recover from stress.

Another study (Cross 2009) showed that when people drank tea after completing a stress-inducing activity, their anxiety went down—and, in fact, went lower than what their anxiety level was before the activity. (Conversely, when people drank water instead, their anxiety went up 25%.) When the participants were asked about tea, they reported that tea relaxes them, confirming that psychological benefits accompany the physiological, and that both yield very real results.

Also embedded in the psychological aspect is the cultural meaning. As Cross and Michaels (2009) put it:

The symbolic dimensions of tea materialise in our body, thus enhancing the chemical effects that tea components have on our health. The cultural meanings in which tea is anchored shape our experience of tea, evoke particular feelings, ways of relating to others and mental states and by doing so they come to constitute our physical experience. This means that the psychological affects the physiological, just as the physiological affect [sic] the psychological.

A life continued

A loss is devastating, and our response is intensely individual. Yet, our way through may be eased just a bit by a thoughtfully provided steaming cup of tea.

–Cross, M. and R. Michaels. “The social psychological effects of tea consumption on stress.” 2009.
–Quinlan, P., et al. “Effects of hot tea, coffee and water ingestion on physiological responses and mood: The role of caffeine, water and beverage type,” Psychopharmacology 134:164–73. 1997.
–Steptoe, A., et al. “The effects of tea on psychophysiological stress responsivity and post-stress recovery: A randomised double-blind trial,” Psychopharmacology 190(1):81–89. 2007.


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