It’s been a long day. Endless meetings followed by endless miles of heavy traffic have you feeling frazzled. Your first instinct is to reach into your coat pocket and grab that pack of cigarettes. Just a drag or two will take the edge off. What could it hurt?
Not so fast.
Not only does smoking lead to numerous health complications, recent studies have shown that tobacco and the nicotine found within do not reduce stress. Quite the opposite, in fact. While it probably goes against everything you know and love about tobacco products, nicotine has actually been shown to increase stress rather than reduce it.
Stress and Tobacco Use
There is a misconception that cigarette smoking helps reduce stress and anxiety. In fact, many people begin smoking as a form of self-medication in order to combat stress, depression, and certain anxiety disorders. This is one reason why those with mental illnesses and mood disorders are more likely to smoke than the general population.
When nicotine enters the bloodstream, and thereby the brain, smokers report that they feel a reduction in stress. However, this feeling is misleading. Researchers have found that smokers are actually more stressed overall than non-smokers, and that quitting reduces stress. The reason for the temporary reduction in stressful feelings is the brain’s craving for nicotine being satisfied. It actually seems smoking itself causes the stress as the brain becomes addicted to nicotine. As cravings begin, stress levels rise. When you smoke, however, stress levels fall again as the brain receives its dose of nicotine. This gives the false impression that smoking reduces stress levels, when in fact, tobacco use causes stress to begin with.
Health Hazards of Smoking
There are numerous risks to smoking cigarettes aside from the stress and anxiety it can cause. For one, smoking is almost the only cause of lung cancer. Most people who get lung cancer who do not smoke live with smokers and are exposed to secondhand smoke. Cardiovascular disease, stroke, and other lung disorders are also heavily associated with smoking. Asthma, allergies, and sudden infant death syndrome are all afflictions children of smokers may face as well.
Even those who only smoke during times of stress under the assumption that tobacco will help alleviate anxiety are still at risk for adverse health outcomes. There is no safe level of tobacco smoke, according to the Surgeon General.
Other Means of Stress Reduction
Despite the fact that smoking actually offers no relief from stress, many people continue to light up for this reason. There are many other, healthier, ways of dealing with stress, however. While different things will work for different people, some ways you might help alleviate stress and anxiety include:
- Prayer and meditation: Pray or focus on your connection to a higher power. Even if you are not religious, you can still meditate and focus on positive thoughts, solutions, or nature. Breathe deeply and slowly.
- Exercise: Working up a sweat and getting your heart rate up are excellent ways to reduce stress. Working out releases endorphins, or “feel good” hormones.
- Talk to a loved one: Sometimes you just need to vent or discuss whatever is stressing you out. If you don’t feel you can discuss the issue with a friend or family member, consider seeking professional counsel.
- Medication: If you have severe anxiety or depression, talk to your doctor. There may be a medication available to help you.
Due to the health risks, and the fact that smoking may be increasing your stress levels, it’s important to quit as soon as you can. There are smoking cessation aids to help if you need them. There are a variety of prescription medications, non-prescription medications, and NRTs available. Use all prescription medications as directed, and only under the supervision of a healthcare professional.