You have a confrontation with your boss, so you step out for a cigarette break.
Traffic is backed up for miles on the way home, so you light up to pass the time.
The kids are acting up, you burn dinner and the electric bill is past due again — so you head outside and smoke a few cigarettes to clear your head.
If you’re a smoker, chances are that this all sounds familiar. Research shows that one of the primary reasons smokers are reluctant to quit is they believe smoking helps them manage stress. On the surface, it makes sense: In most places, if you want to smoke you have to go to a dedicated smoking area, which removes you from the situation and allows you to regain focus. The shot of nicotine combined with the soothing, repetitive motion of actually inhaling and exhaling helps you calm down and deal with the stressful situation.
Except that the relief is only temporary — and it might be all in your head.
Smoking Increases Stress — But So Does Quitting
While many smokers turn to cigarettes in an attempt to reduce stress, the fact is that lighting up is actually detrimental to mental health. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) looked at the results of 26 longitudinal studies focused on the mental health changes spurred by smoking cessation. What the British researchers found was that quitting smoking has significant benefits for mental health, specifically reduced anxiety, depression and stress, regardless of any other psychiatric mood disorders that may be present.
Because quitting smoking reduces stress, it only makes sense that lighting up actually increases stress. Scientists attribute this to several factors:
Nicotine depletion causes stress. When smokers go without a cigarette for a period of time, the nicotine levels in the bloodstream drop, triggering withdrawal symptoms, which increase feelings of stress. The relief felt when taking a “smoke break” isn’t actually a reduction in stress, but a reversal of the nicotine withdrawal, which can often be effectively dealt with by using a nicotine replacement like Nicorette gum or lozenges instead of smoking
Smoking causes feelings of guilt. Almost all smokers understand that the habit is bad for them, but find it difficult to quit. Knowing that you are doing harm to your body (and harming others around you due to secondhand smoke) can cause feelings of guilt, which increase stress.
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At the same time, trying to quit smoking is highly stressful. Again, the inevitable nicotine withdrawal leads to irritability and tension, not to mention physical symptoms like headaches and cravings. The pressure of trying to avoid cigarettes can increase stress as well, especially when you are dealing with intense cravings. The result? A vicious stress cycle that leaves smokers feeling as if they cannot win.
Stress Management a Key to Smoking Cessation
Because stress plays such an important role in why smokers smoke — and because the stress relief benefits are so great when one quits — it seems that stress management is one of the most important factors in a successful smoking cessation plan. Learning how to better manage your stress and manage the situations that lead you to want to smoke can help you kick the habit for good, while also improving your overall mental well-being.
Before you decide to quit, make a stress management plan that will increase your chances for success. Some of the things to consider include:
Time your quit day right. If you’re in the middle of a major move or difficult period at work, it’s not the right time to quit. You’ll never find a time that is completely “stress-free,” but don’t add to the stress of a divorce by quitting.
Take up a hobby. Doing something with your hands will keep you busy so you can’t smoke, and gives you something to keep your mind off not smoking. Not to mention, people who actively engage in hobbies tend to be less stressed and happier overall.
Cut out the caffeine. When you quit smoking, the effects of caffeine can become more pronounced, making you jittery or anxious — which increase stress. Don’t attempt to quit caffeine cold turkey along with smoking, but reduce your intake and pay close attention to how you feel after a cup of coffee or soda.
Get plenty of sleep. Being overtired can only make you more irritable and less equipped to handle everyday stressors. Try to get plenty of good sleep every night.
Exercise. Exercise not only increases endorphins, the “feel good” hormones, it also helps you work out some of the tension you’re carrying. Try a fun class or one that allows you to get out some aggression, such as kickboxing, to relieve stress. Even a walk around the block can help you clear your head and regain focus.
By incorporating these activities into your daily life, and focusing on stress reduction, you can more effectively kick the smoking habit once and for all — and reduce your stress, so the next time your boss makes an unreasonable demand or you burn the chicken, you won’t turn to a cigarette for help.