How it Works— What are the Effects of Nicotine on the Brain?
When a person inhales the smoke from a cigarette, 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.
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 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:
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. It leads them to believe smoking actually reduces stress levels. In fact, the only things they are alleviating are the withdrawal symptoms of nicotine.
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.
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
- 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
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:
- 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 triggers. 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.