Most smokers believe that smoking helps to lower their stress and anxiety levels, but in fact the opposite is true. This view point is supported by the NHS in their article entitled ‘Stopping smoking for your mental health‘.
What effect does smoking have on the body and brain?
Smoking causes a physiological effect on the body. Nicotine and other substances in tobacco smoke stimulate the nervous system which causes an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate. Not being logical, the primitive emotional part of the brain associates these symptoms as a response to stress, so it unconsciously looks out for the threat which caused the reaction. Smoking has triggered the fight/ flight response.
Obviously, there isn’t anything visible but the brain stays on high alert looking out for danger. Around 45 minutes after having a cigarette, a smoker will start to experience mild withdrawal symptoms and unconsciously start to feel quite unsettled. Through repetition, a faulty file has been placed in the hippocampus of a smoker. This is one of the parts of the brain responsible for memory. The faulty memory file is entitled ‘smoking helps to relieve stress’
So when a smoker subconsciously starts to experience the withdrawal symptoms, the amygdala which is responsible for initiating the fight/ flight response, becomes panicked and looks for help. It signals to the hippocampus where the faulty file is and in return, it tells the amygdala that smoking will relieve these symptoms of stress.
However, when you smoke, all that you are doing is relieving the mild withdrawal pangs that the last cigarette caused. Over time the primitive mind then builds up a strong association that smoking relieves stress.
This association is so strong that a vast majority of people who I have helped to stop smoking have this belief. They may have been able to stop smoking for a number of weeks and in the case of pregnant women for many months but when I ask them “Why did you start smoking again?”, nine times out of ten it will be because they encountered a stressful situation.
At the time they all believed that smoking would help them to deal with the stress that the situation caused due to the faulty file that was still lodged in their hippocampus.
Chemicals in cigarette smoke
There is, however, not a single chemical or compound in cigarette smoke that is a relaxant. There are many poisons and stimulants, but not one that is associated with having a calming effect. So it’s just not possible for smoking to promote stress relief.
The nicotine in cigarette smoke also influences many of the brain’s neurotransmitters, particularly norepinephrine which is a stress hormone.
When inhaled, nicotine triggers the release of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter responsible for the body’s stress response. This leads to heightened alertness, increased heart rate, and elevated blood pressure. Norepinephrine also plays a role in mood regulation, potentially contributing to mood-altering effects associated with long-term nicotine use, including increasing the likelihood of becoming anxious or depressed.
The mental health benefits of stopping smoking
Studies show that when people stop smoking that their levels of stress, anxiety and depression lower and they feel happier in themselves. Stopping smoking enables the body and brain to find a better chemical balance as they don’t have to try and cope with the long-term negative effects of nicotine.
Smoking is more prevalent in people that suffer from mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. Evidence suggests that the benefits of giving up smoking on the symptoms of anxiety and depression are equal to antidepressants.
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