Does smoking relieve stress?
A lot happens to you when you smoke. If you speak to a smoker, most will say that smoking helps them to relax. This is mainly down to the nicotine present within a cigarette, although the habit and ritual may also play a part. Nicotine creates an instant feeling of relaxation by releasing the chemical dopamine into the brain.
Once the dopamine rush has worn off and withdrawal symptoms start to set in, a smoker will begin to feel stressed and agitated. Usually, this leads to smokers lighting up again, and reinforcing a habit of stress smoking. One could argue that all smokers stress smoke because they enjoy the nicotine rush that smoking gives them. This element of smoking is one of the reasons that people have such as hard time quitting. You smoke to relieve the withdrawal symptoms that the nicotine itself causes.
A few facts about nicotine
Nicotine is the addictive compound present within cigarettes, and this is the main reason why people become addicted. This substance is addictive because it releases a number of neurotransmitters within the brain, and one of the main neurotransmitters is dopamine.
Dopamine is the ‘feel good,’ chemical which is released when nicotine is consumed via smoking. Dopamine is among the reasons why people become addicted to smoking, as most smokers depend on that ‘rush,’ feeling, especially if they are stressed, to make them feel more relaxed.
Now we are back to the question of does smoking relieve stress? Whilst a smoker may think this is the case, it isn’t. As mentioned earlier, smoking causes withdrawal symptoms, and not only are they absorbing the nicotine, but they are also ingesting tar and carbon monoxide (along with hundreds of other toxic compounds) which is detrimental to their health. In the long run, this causes more stress and anxiety along with a range of health issues.
How does smoking affect our overall health?
Cigarettes contain hundreds of harmful toxic compounds that are inhaled each time someone smokes. Even a passive smoker can inhale some of these toxins, which can be just as harmful. According to the NHS, smoking is one of the biggest causes of deaths and illness, and each year around 78,000 people die from smoking in the UK1. These facts are just a couple from countless studies that indicate how bad smoking is for our health.
Smoking also restricts blood flow to vital organs by causing plaque to build up in the blood vessels thus causing a narrowing of the arteries. Additionally, smoking also causes your blood to thicken and blood clots in veins and arteries may begin to form. Of course, there are many other conditions associated with smoking, including various cancers, heart diseases, and stroke.
Smoking increases heart rate and blood pressure thus causing irregular heart rhythms. Smoking to relax actually induces more stress because you are increasing your heart rate. The reason why a smoker would perhaps not realise the negative affects to begin with is because the effects of the nicotine mask the negatives by inducing that rush and feel-good feeling.
How to deal with stress without smoking
The best way to try and deal with stress without smoking is to find other activities that help you deal with stress. These can include:
- Exercise or going for long walks
- Finding a stop smoking group or confide in friends and family. You also can contact the Samaritans for help with stress
- Take up a hobby that uses your hands, i.e., painting, arts and crafts or gardening
- Try a meditation group that can help teach you how to focus the mind and relax with breathing exercises
- Try a mental wellbeing audio guide
- Try mindfulness and relaxation apps or online communities which are available for free via the NHS library
These are but a few examples of activities smokers can try to implement to help relieve the effects of stress. However, withdrawal symptoms from smoking also add to the normal stress of everyday life, so learning how to deal with these is key to managing stress levels in the first few days of your stop smoking journey.
Interestingly, both the symptoms of stress and the withdrawal symptoms associated with quitting smoking are very similar. Therefore, one could argue, that smoking induces stress. Withdrawal symptoms from nicotine normally leads to a smoker consuming another cigarette, leading to stress smoking and a feeling of being trapped.
Withdrawal symptoms from nicotine and signs of stress can show up in various ways:
- Difficulty sleeping and/or lack of concentration
- Nail biting
- Excessive food consumption
- Low mood
- Low libido
You may also experience a cough which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as a chesty cough means that your body is getting rid of all the debris in your lungs2. Withdrawal symptoms typically last for 2-3 weeks and mean that your body is repairing itself from the impact of smoking. It’s important to keep in mind that withdrawal symptoms don’t last forever.
For more information on quitting for good, contact your local pharmacist or local Stop Smoking Service for more information on how NRT can help. Additionally, read some of our quitter stories for inspiration to start your quitting smoking journey.