Don’t get dragged down: Smoking related to increased anxiety levels
Many smokers say they need a cigarette in order to calm their nerves. So it is somewhat ironic that research suggests smoking can exacerbate stress and lead to anxiety.
As a study published last year by the British Heart Foundation showed, despite the common misconception that having a cigarette can relieve stress, smokers have a 70 per cent increased risk of anxiety and depression when compared to non-smokers.
With so many smokers in the UAE – last year’s figures from The Tobacco Atlas, a guide developed by the American Cancer Society and the World Lung Foundation, suggest there are 1.1 million here – it is more imperative than ever to raise awareness on just how much damage the habit inflicts on one’s health and well-being.
The belief that smoking relieves stress is an illusion, confirms Dr Zaid Zoumot, staff physician at the Respiratory and Critical Care Institute, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. In fact, Zoumot says the body undergoes a great deal of stress when you smoke. “Nicotine reaches the brain within eight seconds, releasing dopamine, which causes a sense of calm and relaxation – a sensation that individuals crave repetitively,” explains Zoumot. “However, at the same time, the body experiences an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, as well as a decrease in oxygen availability to the brain and other parts of the body. This leads to tense muscles.”
When smokers say they feel relief when they smoke, it is because they’re temporarily experiencing a reprieve from the symptoms of nicotine addiction, according to Zoumot. “Nicotine addiction, like any other addiction, can increase stress. Once those pleasant and short-lived feelings that you sense during and immediately after smoking vanish, smokers start going through withdrawal, which causes them anxiety and stress, and leads to the search for the next fix,” he says.
Ex-smoker Jenny Barretto, a 27-year-old Indian expat who lives in Dubai, quit in 2013 after smoking for five years and coming to the realisation that it was damaging her health. “The anxiety would rise until I had a cigarette,” she says. “In my mind, I needed to have one in order to ease my worries. When I was stressed, I couldn’t function without a smoke. I ended up quitting cold turkey, and it took me about a year to stop asking for a puff from a friend’s cigarette. Now, I’m craving-free, though.”
Barretto says that she noticed her anxiety levels increased when she was a smoker; she was also more fidgety and quick to get angry.
Not only can smoking cause anxiety, but it can also lead to lung disorders that result in breathing abnormalities such as hyperventilation. This causes rapid and shallow breathing that’s typically associated with anxiety or panic. “It can leave you feeling weak, light-headed and breathless, which adds to feelings of stress and takes a toll on your overall well-being. The earlier a smoker quits, the more lung capacity they will retain, making breathing much easier,” explains Zoumot.
As well as being detrimental to our physical health, smoking also has a negative effect on our well-being. So why do people still find it hard to quit? One of the reasons is that quitting can temporarily increase feelings of anxiety. The solution is at hand, though.
“The effects of nicotine last a very short time, and although smokers can feel calm after smoking, it later increases the anxiety due to withdrawal. One way to reduce stress is to try a few breathing and relaxation exercises. For example, you can inhale slowly through your nose for five seconds, hold it for two and then breathe out slowly. When breathing out, keep your lips pursed,” Zoumot recommends.
Helen Williams, founder and director of the personal development centre LifeWorks in Dubai, helps smokers lessen their dependency on nicotine through mindfulness techniques.
Williams reveals how some of the individuals she taught noted that their anxiety triggered a need to smoke, but smoking subsequently had the opposite effect desired because it reminded them that they were anxious. So the smoking enhanced anxiety by association, whereas once it had been an activity of comfort and ease.
She explains how mindfulness practices can slowly become a smoker’s go-to activity instead of reaching for a cigarette. “Mindfulness allows for calm, and the ability to sit with anxiety and breathe through it. Over time this creates a soothing pattern, which becomes more desirable than smoking. I know a lot of people who have used mindfulness techniques to help them quit,” says Williams.
Updated: November 17, 2016 04:00 AM