Quitting Smoking Decreases Stress for Habitual Smokers

Posted on June 25th, 2010
Posted in Smoking

Smoking cigarettes has long been associated with "calming one’s nerves" and "unwinding," but a new study shows that smoking is actually attributed to increased stress. Instead of being an effective coping mechanism as smokers believe, smoking cigarettes can aggravate stress levels, while smoking cessation significantly lowers stress. The study’s findings give current smokers just one more reason to quit.

Researchers from the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Queen Mary’s School of Medicine and Dentistry conducted a one-year study involving habitual smokers and their perceived levels of stress. A total of 469 volunteer habitual smokers were surveyed following either myocardial infarction (MI) or coronary artery bypass (CAP) surgery, as these two types of heart surgeries usually result in higher levels of post-operative tobacco cessation. Participants reported a desire to quit smoking and were asked to convey their current perceived levels of stress in a hospital-based interview. The clinical study also involved in-house cessation counseling for the volunteer participants. At the beginning of the clinical trial, 85% of the participants reported that they believed smoking was an effective method of stress management for them.

Following the primary interview, approximately 41%, or 194 of the participants, successfully remained abstinent from smoking for one year. After their one-year follow-up interview, these participants reported a dramatic decrease in their perceived levels of stress—down by an average of 20%. Meanwhile, the reported stress levels from those participants who had not quit smoking or failed maintaining abstinence remained virtually unchanged during the one-year period.

Additionally, these smokers’ perceptions of the effectiveness of smoking as a stress-relieving mechanism remained at baseline levels as well. Even after considering other factors that may have affected the participants’ ability to reduce stress and successfully achieve abstinence—such as age, education, amount of average tobacco consumption, and varying levels of stress initially surveyed—the result of smoking as a contributor to stress still held true.

The report, published in the scientific journal Addiction, concludes that the data can provide comfort to current dependent smokers who wish to quit but fear losing their most reliant stress management system. Habitual smokers and ex-smokers alike may often resort to smoking under the belief that it helps them manage their anxiety during a stressful life event. Yet similar to this study’s findings, other studies have also found that non-smokers tend to report lowered stress levels after tobacco cessation. Smoking is actually associated with contributing stress by producing or exacerbating negative emotional states.

When smokers begin feeling the onset of stress, it is more likely to be nicotine withdrawals. Because nicotine is addictive, physiological changes take place within the body such as disruption to the brain’s reward system circuitry and neurotransmission. These changes cause tolerance, dependency, and withdrawal symptoms when the body is deprived of nicotine. Withdrawal can trigger symptoms such as irritability, restlessness, hostility, depressed mood, increased appetite (and weight gain), loss of concentration, depressed heart rate, and anxiety.

Although habitual smokers may have grown to believe that smoking diminishes anxiety due to its temporary stress-relieving effects, the long-term effects of smoking present much more extreme hazards to one’s health, including chronic stress. After overcoming the initial phase of withdrawal and achieving abstinence, the repeated stress episodes that a smoker goes through during their everyday life essentially cease. This is because smoking itself is a chronic contributor to stress.

The elimination of smoking not only drastically improves one’s physical health, but it also strengthens emotional and mental well-being. Smoking cessation can improve mood and behavioral choices, and ex-smokers may find themselves enjoying things they previously gave up but had once thought of as valuable, or they may start finding pleasure in new activities that they never before considered.

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