Health: Does smoking help stress?

A woman having a cigarette
A woman having a cigarette

Many smokers light up in a bid to combat stress - but, as new research shows, it doesn’t help

mokers, hands up if you’ve ever found yourself thinking, ‘I really need a ciggie - I’m so stressed!’

Sure, smoking might be bad for your health in general. But it’s good for stress-relief, for calming and soothing those nerves after a tough day, right?

Actually, wrong.

It might feel like it’s helping, at the time, but it’s not really doing anything beneficial for those stress levels - in fact, it could even be making things worse, in the longer run.

New research released by the British Heart Foundation (BHF; www.bhf.org.uk), ahead of No Smoking Day on March 11, shows that despite the commonly held idea that smoking’s a stress-reliever, smokers actually have a 70% increased risk of anxiety and depression, compared with non-smokers.

And crucially, there is no significant difference between anxiety and depression rates in long-term ex-smokers (who’ve managed to quit for over a year) and people who’ve never smoked.

“Quitting smoking could be the key to improving not only your physical health, but your mental health too,” notes lead researcher Professor Robert West, professor of health psychology at UCL.

Previously, a review of 26 studies published in the British Medical Journal in 2014 also found that quitting smoking is associated with reduced depression, anxiety and stress, as well as improved positive mood and quality of life (in fact, stubbing out for good had the same, or stronger, effect on treating mood and anxiety disorders as antidepressants).

MASKING THE PROBLEM

“When smokers light up, the feeling of reduced stress or relaxation is temporary and is soon replaced by withdrawal symptoms and cravings. While smoking temporarily reduces these cravings and feelings of withdrawal - which are similar to feeling anxious or stressed - it does not reduce or treat the underlying causes of stress,” says Dr Mike Knapton, BHF’s associate medical director.

This doesn’t just apply to smoking. It’s a pattern that can exist in countless forms: binge-eating is a common example, and drug and alcohol abuse will also strike a chord with many.

Of course, not everybody who ever uses the words, ‘We deserve this slice of cake/glass of wine after the day we’ve had’, will have a problem.

But when these behaviours become a threat to your physical health (which, in the case of alcohol particularly, could happen far more quickly than you’d imagine), as well as your mental health - partly because they’re preventing you addressing the root causes of your distress and seeking appropriate support - they can be cause for concern.

EMOTIONAL CRUTCH

Anybody who’s ever tried to give up an unhealthy habit will know, it can be damn hard.

The issues of addiction has divided some scientists and therapists in the past, which feeds through to public perceptions (for instance, there is generally still far more support for smokers being addicts, than people who struggle with over-eating), but whether or not food, for example, is as scientifically-measurable as addictive as a substance like nicotine, shouldn’t distract from the fact that many people need help in combating their unhealthy stress-soothing behaviours.

“I’d maintain that the reason we turn to cigarettes, alcohol, and comfort eating is two-fold,” says John Dicey, managing director and senior therapist at Allen Carr’s Easyway (www.allencarr.com), which helps smokers across the world to quit.

“One; we’re addicted to nicotine, alcohol and sugar/processed carbs, so we suffer the illusion that they relieve stress. And two; we’re brainwashed into believing these behaviours help with stress. From the image of a smoker or drinker lighting a cigarette [or pouring a drink] after an accident in movies and TV dramas, to Rachel and Monica eating a tub of ice cream in Friends... We’re predisposed to reach for these so-called crutches.”

BREAKING THE CYCLE

It might be tough to change an unhealthy stress-induced behaviour pattern, but it can be done. The process starts with recognising what it is you need to change, and wanting to change it.

Remember, habits are only habits because they became habits. And in time, those new healthier behaviours - like eating well and looking after yourself, doing something positive when you’re stressed, like chatting to a friend, dancing, swimming or reading - can become habits too.

TOP TIPS FOR CRACKING THOSE ‘CRUTCHES’

Alex Hedger, cognitive behavioural psychotherapist and clinical director of psychological therapy clinic Dynamic You (www.dynamicyou.org), shares these tips to help you on your way:

:: Increase your self-awareness

“Keep tabs on your stress levels and other emotions regularly. To break unhealthy ways of coping, you need to be able to identify when you’re actually stressed at the time, rather than after you’ve used the unhealthy habit.”

Unsure how to recognise when stress is a problem? Keep a diary. Hedger suggests writing down when you notice an increase in worrying and irritability, are struggling to relax and feel an increasing sense of pressure, or that you’re overwhelmed by the demands facing you. Noting changes in your appetite, sleep patterns and general motivation can be helpful too, as well as physical signs like muscle tension, aches and pains and low energy.

:: What’s actually the problem?

Can you identify the root cause of your stress - and can this be addressed? “To directly reduce the stress that’s leading to unhealthy behaviours, we need to understand each problem itself and figure out solutions. Sometimes the problem might simply be that you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed. If this is the case, stop and think about how the unhelpful behaviour reduces this problem - are there alternatives you could try?”

:: Keep your priorities

“Once you have thought of different options for dealing with the thing that’s made you stressed [including the unhealthy behaviours], think about how each one helps or prevents you from achieving the wider goals in your life.

“For example, if you’ve had a bad day at work and you light a cigarette, what other solutions are there that could also reduce your stress - and how does each solution impact your life? Smoking may lead to a sense of guilt, whereas having a bath and healthy snack may also calm you down, but match better with an ultimate goal of ‘staying healthy’.”

:: See the big picture

Breaking unhealthy stress habits is likely to take time and patience, but it’s worth it.

“Keep in mind that using alternatives to unhealthy habits is a good thing. But very often, the alternatives don’t feel like they reduce our stress levels quite as much as the unhealthy behaviours. Keep this in mind, as trying out the alternatives might take longer to reduce your stress, but is likely to be much better in the long term.”

:: March 11 is No Smoking Day. For more information and to find out about support available, visit nosmokingday.org.uk

:: Smokers can also access free local NHS support when quitting. Visit www.nhs.uk/smokefree