Think Cigarettes Calm You Down? They Don't

Many smokers think the habit helps them deal with stress, but a new study shows that stress could actually be one of the harmful effects of smoking.

July 13, 2010

Break the habit, and feel your stress levels fall.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—For smokers, that jittery, anxious feeling is a telltale sign that it's time for another cigarette. Smokers often say they can't give up the habit because it helps them chill out, and quitting makes them feel angry, anxious, and sometimes downright mean. And while no one disputes the harmful effects of smoking for any number of reasons, many smokers feel like their mental health is tied to the pack in their pocket.

ADVERTISEMENT

Free Newsletter

But British researchers have found that smoking actually creates stress by making smokers feel anxious when their need for nicotine kicks in then giving them a sense of what they think is relaxation, but in reality is withdrawal relief, when they do light up. Their findings, published in the journal Addiction, revealed that heavy smokers who quit and stayed tobacco-free reported lower levels of stress overall than when they were still addicted.

THE DETAILS: The study authors followed a group of heavy smokers who were serious about quitting; their sample was drawn from smokers who had been hospitalized for either heart attacks or heart bypass surgery. Because of their health issues, the smokers in the study had a strong incentive to kick their habit.

At the beginning of the study and again one year later, the study authors surveyed heavy smokers about their stress levels and took saliva samples to measure the actual amount of nicotine in the participants' systems to determine who had stopped smoking and who couldn't kick the habit. They found that people who quit smoking saw a decrease in their stress levels, while the people who continued to smoke were just as stressed at the end of the study as they were at the beginning.

WHAT IT MEANS: The study authors say they want these results to reassure smokers who worry that quitting will make them feel more stressed that, in fact, quite the opposite is likely. After all, they point out, the smokers' stress levels didn't increase, so it's not as if trying to quit caused them greater stress. Their levels remained unchanged, while nonsmokers saw a significant decrease. Because smoking seems to heighten or intensify stress, they add, it's even possible the bad habit could be linked to other psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia.

If the health risks of smoking aren't enough to make you quit, maybe knowing that smoking is tied to increased stress levels could tip the scales against it. So here are a few resources to help:

• Smoke out medical help. Your health insurance plan may cover smoking cessation programs, and some companies offer separate support services expressly for employees trying to kick the habit. "Quitting 'cold turkey' generally isn't effective," Norman H. Edelman, MD, chief medical officer at the American Lung Association, says. "The single most important thing a smoker can do to improve his or her health is to quit smoking, which may take multiple tries and various treatments to stop using tobacco products for good." Even if your plan doesn't include specific coverage for smoking cessation, visit your doctor. Medications like buproprion and varenicline are available as inexpensive generics and have been clinically shown to help smokers quit. Especially if you have prescription drug coverage, using the medications may be less expensive than over-the-counter solutions like nicotine gums. Regardless, enlisting your doctor as a partner in your fight to quit smoking is always a good move.

• Get online and off cigarettes. Resources like the American Lung Association's Quitter in You website bring smokers trying to quit together to support each other, share tips and ideas, and just find others who can relate to their battle to kick the habit. But most important, such a resource helps those who are trying to quit understand that if they have tried and failed before, that doesn't mean they can't quit. Research shows it takes most smokers several tries before they quit for good; this social network for fellow travelers on the road to a tobacco-free life can help you avoid some of the shame or guilt you might feel around non-smokers.

• Help someone quit. If you're not a smoker but someone you love is, it's just as important for your health that they stop smoking as it is for his or hers. Secondhand smoke has also been linked to increased stress, anxiety, and depression; thirdhand smoke (all the cigarette chemicals that linger after the smell of secondhand smoke dissipates) can react with indoor air pollutants to form other cancer-causing chemicals. While someone has to decide on her own that it's time to quit, you can still support her when she's made that choice. Check out sites like SmokeFree.gov, which has tools for helping smokers kick the habit. Help the smoker you love figure up how much money he or she will save by not buying cigarettes; create a "craving journal" to help him or her identify and deal with smoking triggers; and look up smoking-cessation studies across the country to see if there are any near you. Hopefully, with your support, the smoker you love can become the ex-smoker you love.

Tags: smoking