The Connection – Smoking and Anxiety

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Many people are under the false assumption that smoking helps relieve anxiety OR they know intellectually that it doesn’t help, but they don’t actually know why or how the brain tricks you into still craving that cigarette as the “only” thing that will take away the panic, the racing thoughts, etc. The association between cigarettes and anxiety can be confusing when you don’t know the whole story of how they affect each other.

close up photo of cigarette

Clients with anxiety, depression, or who have beat other addictions are the ones who will benefit the most from quitting! Most of the time, one drug has a learned association with another that is being used. Think about coffee. If you’re a coffee drinker and a smoker, you probably associate the two together. Same with alcohol and other drugs. So staying abstinent from all drugs, including nicotine, is a good way to stick to your sobriety.

It is backed by science and many studies that quitting smoking only has a positive effect on mental health and to continue to smoke is to continue to agitate the symptoms of anxiety as well as speed up the progression to HIV stage 3 (AIDS).

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How smoking increases anxiety and why your brain still tricks you into thinking that smoking helps relieve anxiety and stress

Nicotine is a stimulant. When it enters the bloodstream and makes its way to the brain (within 7-10 seconds) it increases the heart rate, increasing your cortisol, as well as your alertness. These are symptoms of physical stress, and for people with anxiety or a predisposition for anxiety, these stress catalysts can make anxiety even worse.

Persons with a predisposition to anxiety also may experience more anxious thoughts as they enter nicotine withdrawal, which happens many times during the day for cigarette smokers. On the graph below, you can see that after the first cigarette, throughout the rest of the day there are continues spikes going up and down. The spike up is the initial pleasure response (release of dopamine) from smoking. The down spikes are the withdrawal cues that tell your brain to smoke again- manifesting themselves in excessive worry, irritability, tiredness, etc. This cycle of smoking to relieve withdrawal symptoms is very taxing on the body and can cause unnecessary stress on the body’s nervous system as you are constantly trying to find equilibrium yet being stuck in a cat and mouse game of highs and lows from nicotine.

nictotine withdrawal graph

Acute tolerance is what tricks the body into thinking that smoking that cigarette is the magic stress reliever/ anxiety killer. But, acute tolerance is actually your body trying to protect itself from the effects of smoking. What happens is, as soon as you light up your cigarette when you’re feeling anxious, your body knows that your heart rate will increase rapidly, and you will get a short burst of energy. To defend against this, your body slows its heart rate down before you inhale. The cigarette did not relieve your stress or anxiety symptoms. Your body did (right before you smoked) as a response to what it knew was going to happen. Once you light up and smoke that cigarette, your body gets a wave of anxiety-causing symptoms again from the increased heart rate and raised alertness, yet thanks to acute tolerance, you would never even know!

One of the best things that you can do for your mental health is to reduce or quit your tobacco use and trade in your cigarettes for healthier, effective coping strategies for anxiety and stress. Reach out to a tobacco treatment specialist (TTS) at UNIFIED- HIV Health and Beyond now to see how we can work with you to reduce your stress and anxiety without cigarettes! To contact the TTS at our Detroit office, call (313)446-9817 to speak with Amber Jager, and for our Ypsilanti/Jackson area office, call (734)572-9355 to speak with Erin Suprunuk.

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