It is a common fallacy today, among smokers at least, that smoking reduces anxiety and makes you more relaxed. While It may seem to do so in the short term during the actual intake of cigarette smoke, it is actually only the cessation of withdrawal pangs that gives the impression of anxiety relief and the evidence is there that the time between cigarettes might actually be contributing to anxiety
So How does it work?
Well one mechanism where smoking could contribute to anxiety is the withdrawal symptoms from the nicotine itself.
If you have ever tried to quit smoking, (and I have many times) you will have experienced the anxiety that you can feel from withdrawal. Well this not only happens when you quit.
As soon as you have finished a cigarette, the nicotine levels in your body start to drop and these falling levels of nicotine are what we call withdrawal and it is basically your body wanting a nicotine refill, which of course is what makes you smoke another cigarette.
This withdrawal can lead to agitation, restlessness, irritability, and other anxiety symptoms and can start within hours of the last cigarette.
A second mechanism where smoking can help trigger anxiety is the effect the smoke has on your lungs:
Damaged lungs from cigarette smoke, or the carbon monoxide levels in the lungs can impair your breathing, making you breathe faster and more erratically, or it can lead to excessive coughing, both of which can induce hyperventilation.
Hyperventilation occurs when there is not enough carbon dioxide in the lungs and can result in multiple anxiety-like symptoms such as chest pains, quick heartbeat, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath.
Each of these symptoms of hyperventilation can then trigger real anxiety symptoms and panic attacks which will then in turn trigger more hyperventilation, causing a vicious circle.
On top of all this, nicotine itself can also affect the heart rhythm, which, while not dangerous by itself, can cause people to fear a heart attack and induce panic attacks.
Other possible ways that smoking could contribute to anxiety are by causing a Magnesium deficiency or vitamin B6 deficiency, both of which are well documented to cause anxiety and which I will look at in later articles.
Magnesium deficiency can be caused because Smoking causes stress that in turn causes blood cholesterol levels to rise and magnesium levels to fall, while vitamin B6 levels can be reduced as tobacco has been shown in studies to block your body’s use of pyridoxine (or vitamin B6).
So it certainly looks like tobacco can contribute to anxiety symptoms in some people in a variety of different ways, but what does the science have to say?
Well there have been many studies done to link smoking with anxiety.
Some studies show that people with anxiety are more likely to take up smoking, which is what many people presume the link is, but in fact the majority of studies show that smoking often leads to an increased chance of developing an anxiety disorder. The image below shows the results from a meta study showing just that.
There are also other studies that show that people who smoke are more likely to develop anxiety disorders later on. For example teens who smoked at least one pack of cigarettes a day were 15 times as likely to develop panic disorders, or repetitive episodes of panic, during early adulthood as those who did not smoke
Although not as convincing, studies on rats also show that anxiety levels are reduced during nicotine exposure, but after nicotine is stopped, the anxiety levels are drastically increased for extended periods, which is what we expect happens in humans. I certainly know that for myself, in the times when I was smoking, if I had extended periods of time between cigarettes, the cravings that I would characterise as “gasping for a cigarette” would feel remarkably like the physical symptoms of my anxiety, or an oncoming panic attack.
So What can you do?
Well, of course there are no real upsides to smoking, as cigarettes are expensive, bad for your health and can contribute to anxiety.
The best bet then is to quit. It’s not easy, I know that first hand, but I also know first hand that it is the best thing for your body, your skin, your aroma, your teeth, and your anxiety.
If you don’t like cold turkey, then grab some patches or some gum, but beware of taking too many at any one time, as those buggers can feel more more like anxiety than regular cigarettes when overused, but they are effective when used properly and will certainly help you kick the habit.
Now is as good a time as any to quit.
Best of luck.