There is a common misconception that smoking helps relieve the symptoms of stress, depression and other mental health conditions. But the reality is more complicated and not as beneficial.
So, how does smoking affect mental health and how is mental health affected by quitting smoking?
Most people with mental health conditions started smoking before their symptoms developed. And while smoking might relieve the problems associated with nicotine withdraw, this ‘relief’ isn’t the same as helping the actual mental health condition. Smoking can make mental health problems worse in the long run on top of the other smoking related illnesses like cancer, heart disease and lung disease.
Quitting smoking has been shown to improve a variety of mental health conditions, particularly anxiety and depression. In fact, giving up smoking can have the same effect as taking antidepressants.
Smoking Addiction Problems
Smoking tobacco products allows nicotine to enter the bloodstream and travel rapidly to the brain. In the short term, nicotine can improve mood while decreasing anger and stress, however this is outweighed by the long term effects.
Our bodies can start to feel withdrawal and cravings within thirty minutes of the last dose of nicotine. This withdraw creates stress which intensifies over time and the amount of nicotine needed to satisfy the cravings also gradually increases.
The sense of relief created by satisfying the nicotine craving is often mistaken for ‘relaxing’ but in reality smokers are no more relaxed than they would’ve been if they weren’t addicted to nicotine.
Some people use smoking to try and self-medicate their mental health conditions, but in the long run they could be making the problem worse. Research has shown that heavy smokers are more likely to develop a mental health condition and sufferers of mental health conditions usually find it more difficult to quit smoking.
The pressures of life can be difficult to deal with and stress is a common condition that can lead to anxiety and depression. People suffering from stress are more likely to turn to alcohol and smoking to self-medicate their symptoms.
Things To Watch For
The sense of relief that comes with satisfying the craving for nicotine can feel ‘relaxing’ but in the long term smoking isn’t helping stress and can potentially make it worse.
Contrary to popular belief, smoking doesn’t reduce anxiety. In reality smoking increases anxiety and tension without resolving the actual issues. Smokers using tobacco to self-medicate often ignore the underlying causes of anxiety for longer which can also make the situation worse.
Nicotine withdrawal increases anxiety and while satisfying that craving might relieve the feeling of withdrawal, it doesn’t help with other anxieties.
Smoking is particularly common among people suffering from depression and this group also find it harder to quit.
People suffering from depression might be self-medicating with smoking as nicotine stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain which creates a feeling of happiness. But the release of dopamine from smoking is temporary and smoking has been shown to discourage the brain from releasing dopamine on its own. Over time smokers start to produce less dopamine than non-smokers which can make depression worse.
It’s unclear whether smoking leads to depression or depression increases the likelihood of smoking, but the two are known to be linked.
Bipolar disorder involves severe changes in mood, energy and the ability to function.
Studies have shown that people with bipolar disorder are much more likely to smoke than the rest of the population and smokers are more likely to develop this mental health condition earlier than non-smokers. Smokers are also more likely to develop more severe forms of bipolar disorder and have suicidal thoughts.
People with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are also significantly more likely to smoke than the rest of the population. Smoking during pregnancy is a possible risk factor for ADHD in children and, like other mental health conditions, people with ADHD often use smoking to self-medicate.
Teenagers with untreated ADHD are more likely to take up smoking and smokers with ADHD are also more likely to develop drug and alcohol disorders.
Schizophrenia is another mental health condition that many sufferers self-medicate using smoking. People who suffer from schizophrenia are three times more likely to smoke than the rest of the population and are also more likely to be heavy smokers.
Studies have shown that there may be a causal link between smoking and schizophrenia but more research needs to be done to understand any potential link.
It’s Not Too Late
We already know that quitting smoking can have huge benefits to your physical health as a lot of the damage caused by smoking can be healed over time. But how does quitting smoking affect our mental health?
Despite the fact that many people suffering from mental health conditions use smoking to self-medicate, quitting smoking can actually relieve stress, anxiety and depression.
Nicotine withdrawal increases stress and anxiety and can start within thirty minutes of the last cigarette. While these feelings are temporarily released when the craving for nicotine is satisfied, it doesn’t last long. Smokers are trading a few minutes of ‘relief’ from withdrawal for longer periods of heightened stress and anxiety.
Quitting smoking has been shown to improve mood and reduce anxiety over time. Withdrawal and cravings are not easy to deal with, but our mental health is better after getting past them.
The link between smoking and depression is so strong that research has shown that quitting smoking can be as effective as antidepressants.
Giving up smoking can lead to people suffering from mental health problems feeling happier, calmer and having a better quality of life.
Smoking might be commonly used by sufferers of mental health conditions to self-medicate, but research has shown that smoking can actually make these conditions worse. And quitting smoking can have real benefits to our mental health and wellbeing.