Smoking and Mental Health: How Smoking Affects Your Brain & Body

The link between smoking and mental health has, for a long time, been debated. Thankfully, due to modern technology and greater understanding of how the thousands of chemicals in smoke interact with the brain, we are now realising the harmful effects smoking is having on mental health.

Smoking to relieve symptoms of your mental health issues could potentially be doing your body more harm than good. According to Public Health England, a third of cigarettes smoked in England are smoked by people with poor mental health1. However, regardless of whether you struggle with mental health issues or not, you could still be at potential risk of developing problems if you don’t cut down or quit smoking.

Smoking effects on the mind

Our bodies and minds are inextricably linked and understanding how smoking affects our mental health means understanding our bodies. An unhealthy body impacts our mental health in many negative ways even though we may not be aware of it, and according to one recent study, smoking and higher levels of smoking are linked to a greater risk of both depression and schizophrenia2.

There are hundreds of toxic compounds within one cigarette, and among the most harmful to us include:

  • Nicotine is highly addictive and causes many uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms
  • Carbon Monoxide blocks the blood’s ability to carry oxygen around the body
  • Tar is sticky substance that blocks arteries causes blood clots and potential cancers
  • Benzene decreases red blood cells, damages bone marrow, and is also linked with leukaemia
  • Arsenic increases chances of various cancers

In fact, cigarettes release over 5,000 different toxic chemicals3 when they burn and at least 70 of them are known to cause a range of cancers. This gives you an idea of the negative impacts smoking has on the body, all of which have the potential to also contribute to mental health issues.

It has also been discovered that, cigarette smoking is strongly associated with psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia4. This is due to nicotine damaging the parts of the brain in a similar way to that found within schizophrenic patients.

Nicotine and mental health

Adults with depression are twice as likely to smoke as those without the condition, while adults with schizophrenia three times more likely to smoke5. This is largely due to the perceived effects of nicotine, with the drug playing a key role when it comes to smoking and mental health. Most people who smoke are addicted to nicotine and this is what keeps people locked into the vicious circle of quitting and lighting up, for those with underlying mental health conditions, it is often used to temporarily control or manage symptoms.

When inhaled, nicotine stimulates the adrenal glands to release certain hormones such as, adrenaline and dopamine6. These hormones and chemicals mean that smokers’ feel good for a short period of time after lighting up, which may temporarily relieve symptoms of mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.

If a smoker suddenly decides to quit without a plan, then they are more likely to be so overwhelmed by the withdrawal symptoms that they will instantly revert back to smoking. Although nicotine does not pose any major threat to the body such as cancer, the withdrawal symptoms can be tough to deal with and can contribute to mental health issues.

Withdrawal symptoms from nicotine may include:

  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Nausea
  • Poor concentration
  • Increase in appetite
  • Indecision

Psychological effects of not smoking

Once you have decided to quit and you have made a quit smoking plan, you will soon be on your way to a fitter, healthier, body and mind. The psychological benefits of not smoking include:

  • Being less anxious and depressed
  • Increase in positive mood
  • General sense of feeling happy and well
  • More energy
  • Less stressed
  • Increase in focus
  • Increase in libido and appetite

Naturally, dealing with the first cravings can be difficult, however, with a solid plan you can refer to the stop smoking timeline to get an idea of how quickly you will begin to feel the benefits of quitting. In fact, in as little as 20 minutes after your last cigarette, your body will begin to recover, and you will be on your way to being smoke free!

Mental health smoking support

Quitting smoking is a difficult to achieve on your own, and anyone concerned about mental health and smoking should seek support and guidance. Smoking support groups or advisors are a great way to help with mental health and smoking, providing you with a chance to talk about any issues you may be experiencing. Your local pharmacy or GP can also connect you with smoking support advisors in your local area.

If you are prone to anxiety and depression you may want to also consider a form of therapy such as CBT (cognitive behavioural Therapy). CBT is useful for smokers because it focusses on your current issues. This particular therapy focuses on the idea that your thoughts, physical actions, and feelings are all interconnected and that negative thoughts can trap you in a vicious cycle. A CBT therapist will look for ways to improve your state of mind on a daily basis.

Other ways to quit smoking and improve mental health are:

  • Thinking positive
  • Improve your diet
  • Joining a gym or take up a physical outdoors hobby such as running
  • Making a quit smoking plan
  • Keeping your hands and mouth busy
  • Make non-smoking friends
  • Surround yourself with positive people
  • Use NRT products
  • Speak your GP about prescription drugs

Today, there is a lot of help for smokers who are also suffering with mental health issues. You are not alone. People realize how tough it is to quit smoking, and for people who are dependent on drugs for their mental state in particular, extra support may be provided to help you kick the habit.

For more information about how NRT can help you quit smoking for good, speak to your local pharmacist or the NHS. For more inspiration, read our quitter stories and start your own stop smoking journey today.

Find out more about quitting


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