Stress and Smoking

Feeling down, nervous, anxious, or stressed out? Is your first reaction to light up a cigarette? Maybe you’re one of those hard-working, deadline-driven people who smoke cigarettes to calm down. If so, you may be a stress smoker.

Many smokers are more likely to increase their cigarette use when they’re under pressure. Certain types of events—such as holidays, job changes, and life transitions—can be a trigger for bad habits, including smoking. New circumstances, heightened expectations, financial obligations, and lengthened lists of things to buy and do can increase the pressure. A smoker’s first reaction may be to reach for a pack and a lighter, but smoking can leave you feeling more stressed, not less.

How Smoking Causes Stress

Many who smoke do so because they believe it calms them down. This is because nicotine is a mood-altering drug. When inhaled, it may seem to smolder feelings of frustration, anger, and anxiety, the subjective effects of stress.

The Cleveland Clinic explains that while smoking may make people believe that they feel calmer, it actually increases the level of stress on your body and causes the following negative reactions:

  • rise in blood pressure
  • increased heart rate
  • tensed muscles
  • constricted blood vessels
  • decrease in oxygen available to the brain and body to facilitate healthy coping skills

When you smoke, nicotine enters your bloodstream and travels to the brain, where it releases several neurotransmitters including dopamine, which is the primary “reward” chemical in the brain. Unfortunately, the positive feelings experienced when dopamine is release is short-lived. Once the dopamine levels recede, you’ll feel worse than you did before you lit up.

In addition, smoking ultimately causes more stress, as it takes a toll on your respiratory system and contributes to serious illness. These physical ailments compound your feelings of stress.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), reports that some studies show that nicotine damages blood vessels, causing the skin to appear lifeless and wrinkle quickly. It also causes oxygen starvation, which makes lungs work poorly and causes plaque build-up. Nicotine may increase lung and breast tumor growth. And the more cigarettes you smoke, the more harmful effects you suffer.

Healthy Ways to Cope

The more you employ natural methods to fight stress, the fewer cigarettes you’ll be likely to smoke, and the better you’ll feel. With a proper coping plan in place, you’ll find that you don’t have to light up to cool down.

One of the best strategies is to substitute smoking with an effective form of relaxation and practice it often. The key is to find something that you enjoy. As soon as you feel the urge to light up, try one of these methods instead:

Deep Breathing & Meditation

Find a quiet place, sit down, close your eyes, and control your breathing. Holding a hand over your stomach, slowly inhale to feel it rise and exhale to feel it contract. Do this several times until you start to feel relaxed.

Visualization

Visualization can instantly relieve tension and anxiety. Take a few moments to sit in a chair or lie down in a quiet room and close your eyes. Imagine yourself in pleasant, calm surroundings. Imagine the sounds of water, the warmth of the sun, and the smell of sand, grass, or fresh air.

Walking

Taking a walk can provide you with similar relaxed feelings. Sometimes it helps to organize your thoughts or do some problem-solving during the walk. Other times, it’s best to forget your problems momentarily and focus on your surroundings.

Yoga & Tai Chi

If you’re going through long periods of stress, try a regular practice of relaxation exercises like yoga or tai chi. Yoga is said to rid the body of anxiety by releasing the mental stresses imprinted into your body. Tai chi helps achieve balance in the body through movement.

Exercise

Regular daily exercise routines can be as simple as brisk walking, bike riding, or swimming. American Heart Association guidelines recommend spending at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week exercising. Physical activity boosts your endorphins, the neurotransmitters that make you feel good—what joggers may refer to as a “runner’s high.” Walking, or a more vigorous workout like running or playing your favorite sport, can lift your spirits tremendously. Those problems that caused your stress will feel so much easier to conquer afterwards.

Here are some additional ideas for peaceful practices to replace smoking:

Take a Time Out

Stepping away from a stressful situation, even for a few minutes, can be enough to restore your peace and equilibrium. Part of what you’re seeking with a smoking break is a chance to have a few minutes to yourself. You can still take a break, but ditch the cigarettes! Give yourself some quiet time, and as you do so, work on adjusting your mindset to modify unrealistic expectations or other harmful thinking patterns. If you feel you need more structure to your break, have some tea or a healthy snack.

Talk to Someone You Trust

If you’re used to smoking with others, keep what’s good about your time together (the talking) and discard what’s bad (the smoking). There’s no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to creating healthier habits—talking to a trusted friend about what’s bothering you can help you put stressful situations into proper perspective.

Take Care of Yourself

Unhealthy behaviors often travel in packs—and not just cigarette packs. If you haven’t been taking proper care of yourself by getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising regularly, you may be more likely to want to smoke in a misguided effort to make yourself feel better. Instead, be sure to put extra emphasis on taking care of yourself physically and mentally during stressful times. When you’re well-rested, active, and fueled with healthy, low-fat foods, you’ll be less likely to let bad habits flare up.

Remember that stress is a normal part of life, but you can control how you deal with it. Smoking is a false security blanket for your body that provides little comfort in reality. The more aware you are of your smoking triggers, the less you’ll smoke, and the fewer hurdles you’ll have when choosing to quit.