Tobacco Use and Mental Health These Days

tobacco influence, man depressed smokes
Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

Everyone is familiar with the devastating physical effects of smoking. However, what people don’t think about is psychological effects. These include mood and behavior changes and mental health.

Table of contents:
1. How it Works — What are the Effects of Nicotine on the Brain?
2. Why do People Become Addicted to Smoking Cigarettes?
3. Nicotine’s Effects on Mental Health
4. The Effects of Nicotine on People Who Suffer from Mental Illness
5. Find Other Ways to Deal With Stress

How it Works — What are the Effects of Nicotine on the Brain?

When a person inhales the smoke from a cigarette, or the vapor from an e-cig with e-juice inside, it hits the lungs within 10 seconds. The nicotine from the cigarette begins to cause a series of reactions. It increases the levels of chemicals called dopamine and epinephrine.

Dopamine is what regulates movement, motivation, emotion, and feelings of pleasure.
When the body releases epinephrine, or adrenaline, in high concentration, the blood pressure, heart, and breathing rate all increase. This makes the person feel energized and alert. This is what creates the “rush” or a nicotine buzz.

The first few times a person smokes a cigarette, he or she experiences a “smoker’s high.” This is a short buzz with lightheadedness, an elevated mood, and a general feeling of pleasure.

Why do People Become Addicted to Smoking Cigarettes?

People become addicted to cigarettes because they think they’ll get the same buzz every time they smoke one. What they don’t realize is that because of nicotine’s mental effects, they’ll never get the same rush as their first cigarettes.

This is because that first cigarette raised the brain’s expectations of what pleasure should be. A person then attempts to reach this same level of pleasure by smoking another cigarette and another. Then, they’ll smoke a few more. However, that person’s “pleasure threshold” has already been raised. As a result, that same release of dopamine no longer brings him or her as much pleasure as it did. This is just one of the psychological effects of nicotine.

This is also what it means to say someone is “chasing a high”. It’s because the person is chasing something he or she will never “catch” again. However, the smoker doesn’t necessarily see it that way because of the mental effects of tobacco cigarettes.

If no cigarette will ever be as “pleasurable” as the first, why do people claim to feel so “relaxed” after?

The next section explores the answer to this question and other negative effects of nicotine.

Nicotine’s Effects on Mental Health

According for the Centers for Disease Control, 31% of all smokers are adults with a mental illness. 

These illnesses can include depressive disorders, bipolar disorders, and more severe psychotic disorders which require hospitalization. Like all other smokers, these people are at an increased risk for smoking-related diseases, such as lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. There are also additional risks and effects of smoking, however. Tobacco use may affect treatment for some mental illnesses, as the nicotine can react with medications the patients are taking to treat their mental illnesses.

People who are addicted to smoking often justify their habit by saying things like:

It helps with my anxiety because it relaxes me,

It helps me deal with stress because it calms me down.

People who are addicted start to believe that they are self-medicating. In reality, the only thing they are “treating” when they smoke a cigarette is the nasty symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. Therefore, those people are treating something that would not be there if they hadn’t started smoking in the first place. A study from the Institute of Medical Psychology and Behavior Neurobiology at the University of Tubingen in Germany supports this idea.

Nicotine & Stress

Smokers often have a cigarette either during or immediately after a stressful event or situation. The act of smoking and the rituals associated with it seem to relieve stress temporarily, which is something the best vapes can replicate. It leads them to believe smoking actually reduces stress levels. In fact, the only things they are alleviating are the withdrawal symptoms of nicotine.

The more nicotine people ingest into their bodies, the more they need to feel normal. This is why smokers seem to become irritated and angry at increasing intervals throughout the day. This anger can cause people to say or do harmful things to themselves and others.

Still not convinced…?

Because smokers use cigarettes to relieve stress, they begin to lose their ability to actually cope with stress. After a while, their answer for everything is smoking a cigarette instead of dealing with the underlying issues. Coping with stress is a mental skill. If people don’t use it, they lose it.

Nicotine & Anxiety

Nicotine’s relationship to anxiety is similar to its relationship with stress. Anxiety is also a withdrawal symptom that tends to happen within hours of a person’s last cigarette. For heavy smokers, these withdrawal symptoms can occur much earlier.

Everyone knows smoking can lead to decreased lung function. What they don’t know is how having unhealthy lungs can worsen certain symptoms of anxiety. When a person’s lungs don’t work properly, he or she may breathe faster than normal. This is to compensate for the lack of oxygen getting to the brain and heart. This, along with frequent coughing, can cause a person to hyperventilate.

Hyperventilation is a common trigger for panic attacks and other symptoms of anxiety. They include rapid heartbeat, chest pains, shortness of breath, and lightheadedness. These symptoms can, in turn, create even greater feelings of anxiety. As a result, they may lead to the development of a panic disorder.

The Effects of Nicotine on People Who Suffer from Mental Illness

According to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who suffer from mental illness are 70 percent more likely to smoke than those who don’t.


There are many factors determining who does and does not develop mental illnesses like depression. Many believe nicotine is a direct cause of depression. This is due to nicotine’s effects on the dopamine levels in the brain.

Smoking tobacco may temporarily increase levels of dopamine. Therefore, it increases a person’s feelings of pleasure and well-being.

Eventually, these levels fall to abnormally low levels, causing the person to feel unhappy. If this pattern continues for days, weeks, or months at a time, the person’s dopamine pathways stop working normally. This is why one of the negative effects of nicotine is the development of mood disorders such as depression.


According to the Royal College of Psychiatry, 90 percent of people with schizophrenia smoke. This may be because people with schizophrenia smoke in an attempt to manage the symptoms of the disease.
Or it might be to counteract side effects of their medication such as restlessness, tremors, and muscle spasms. Some studies have even shown smoking to have positive effects on attention, working memory, and reflexes in people with schizophrenia.

Ways to Quit

For smokers, quitting can seem incredibly intimidating. Every smoker knows what happens when he or she goes without a cigarette for too long. Feelings of anxiety, frustration, and anger begin to emerge. That person becomes quite obsessed with the thought of smoking. This is what makes it so hard to quit.

Some patients who suffer from one form of mental illness or another begin smoking within the walls of a mental health treatment facility. These facilities often allow patients to smoke on the premises, and some even offer tobacco products as rewards for good behavior. The health implications of these actions have been largely ignored until recent years, as most of the staff’s efforts are generally focused on treating the illness.

Many patients recover from their disorders well enough to leave the facilities and refocus on living a normal life, but once the smoking habit has started, it can be a hard one to break. Once the mental illness is under control, many sufferers want to quit smoking but find that it is more difficult than they imagined it would be. This can cause frustration and may hinder the recovery from some depressive illnesses.

However, there are things a person can do to make the process easier. They will give him or her a much better chance at success.

Find Other Ways to Deal With Stress

When people use smoking as a way of “dealing with” stress, they often forget how to do it without nicotine. It can be helpful for people trying to quit smoking to research other ways to handle these negative emotions. Some useful stress-relief techniques include:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Aromatherapy
  • Listening to music
  • Getting a massage
  • Talking to someone about the things that may be causing these negative feelings
  • Writing about any negative feelings you may be experiencing
  • Exercising

Take a journey in your mind. Think of yourself at the beach or in a garden or the mountains… anywhere you want. Close your eyes and think about what it would feel like to be there right now. Enjoy all the little things in this beautiful place.

Avoid Triggers

Certain people, places, or things can make a person crave a cigarette, otherwise known as triggers. While triggers can be different for everyone, some common ones include:

  • Driving
  • Overeating
  • Alcohol
  • A cup of coffee
  • Places, like bars, where smoking is common
  • Being around friends or family members who smoke

Even handling cigarettes, lighters, or matches can be triggered. Finding all of the lighters in your house, car, or purse and throwing them away can eliminate lots of them.

Be Prepared for the Withdrawal Symptoms

Another way people can increase their chances of success is to mentally prepare oneself for the withdrawal symptoms ahead. By doing this, people can strengthen their ability to fight off cravings.

Published: March 1, 2015 Updated: February 12, 2019

Tobacco Use and Mental Health These Days
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9 comments on “Tobacco Use and Mental Health These Days
  • Sophie
    September 6, 2018 at 9:56 am

    Please can anybody tell me if there are in ireland places to detoxify and stop smoking? I mean not cannabis but cigarettes.

  • Shiraz Kassam
    May 23, 2018 at 4:09 am

    After I quit smoking my depression was gone.

  • lordwin r matias
    January 10, 2018 at 1:05 pm

    smoking affects your brain so it has also effect on your mind and heart.the effect on your heart is you can feel often very fast heart pulse.

  • Matthew
    January 7, 2018 at 12:38 pm

    Not everybody is addicted for the same reason and they sure don’t continue to smoke for the same reason , especially the mentally ill like me.

    • Liz
      May 9, 2018 at 11:40 pm

      I also have depression and chronic pain . It began as a stress reliever and pain reducer however it feels like a huge crutch I use daily now, unfortunately. It continues to be my ally when I feel alone and sad or aching. I hope to find some better solutions soon before my health suffers for this common use of a,very deadly product . The tobacco industry is despicable. Plus,my grandparents all had serious issues late in life due to smoking . My grandfather died from lung cancer! That should say enough .

    • Chris
      June 18, 2018 at 7:10 am

      Matthew, are you still smoking ?

  • Don
    January 5, 2018 at 12:48 am

    This is a fantastic article for smokers and non smokers. For addiction and sensitivities in personality leading to disorder.

    Meditation and breathing. Really listening to yourself.

    It’s unfortunate that the world moves so fast that we just.. don’t do such important things.

    I mean, I could keep going on, but again, this article offers great perspective.

  • christy
    November 28, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    Dear Sir/Madam,

    My name is Christy and I got to West London Free School. I am doing an extended project on the psychological effects of smoking tobacco and was wondering if I could ask you a few question.

    • In your opinion what is the worst side effect of smoking?
    • How quickly can smoking cause this effect?
    • What is the most effective way of quitting smoking?

    I realise you are very busy and you have other priorities, however if you have time to respond to even some of my questions I would be very grateful.

    If you could also recommend some websites with useful articles I would really appreciate it.

    Yours sincerely,

  • Ryan
    October 21, 2017 at 1:23 am

    I used to be a smoker but I joined karate and kept getting my butt kicked during sparring because I was so winded from smoking. So that actually helped me quit.

    However, if I do go out with friends for drinks which is not very often, I smoke. But I guess I have that memory of getting hammered in karate ingrained into my brain so much, that it is enough to keep me from smoking at other times.