New research turns the commonly held ideas that smoking is an escape valve for stress and that quitting can make you feel more anxious on its head.
In fact, the opposite is true as smokers who have success giving up smoking feel less stressed.
The British Journal of Psychiatry published a study whose authors said: “The belief that smoking is stress relieving is pervasive, but almost certainly wrong. The reverse is true: smoking is probably anxiogenic [causes anxiety] and smokers deserve to know this and understand how their own experience may be misleading.”
The researchers kept tabs on 491 smokers who attended NHS stop smoking clinics in England. The smokers took part in eight weekly meetings and were given a nicotine patch.
Of those who took part, 106 or 21.6% had been diagnosed with mental health issues, the main ones being anxiety and mood swing problems.
At the beginning of the study everyone taking part was asked why they smoked, whether it was ‘mainly for pleasure’, ‘mainly to cope’ or ‘about equal’.
A half year after the trial began, 14 per cent or 68 smokers had succeeded in abstaining from smoking. The study discovered a notable difference in the anxiety levels between those participants who had stopped smoking and those who had taken it up again.
Everyone who had refrained from smoking exhibited a drop in anxiety levels, and those participants who said they smoked to cope with life showed a “significant” fall off in anxiety when evaluated against those who chose to smoke for pleasure.
Of the smokers who took up the habit again, the ones who did it for pleasure demonstrated no alteration in anxiety levels, while those who said they smoked to cope and the ones diagnosed with psychiatric disorders exhibited an increase.
Commenting on the study’s findings the researchers said that participants who smoked to cope were more inclined to smoke a cigarette quickly after getting up in the morning, which the researchers said was a habit “to stave off withdrawal symptoms, which include anxiety. When these participants stopped smoking, they eliminated these daily incidents of anxiety.
Of those smokers who took up the habit again and demonstrated higher levels of anxiety, the researchers said: “There is no obvious causal mechanism other than those who relapse feeling concern arising from the continuing health risks of their smoking.”
In conclusion the researchers said: “In summary, stopping smoking probably reduces anxiety and the effect is probably larger in those who have a psychiatric disorder and who smoke to cope with stress.
“A failed quit attempt may well increase anxiety to a modest degree, but perhaps to a clinically relevant degree in people with a psychiatric disorder and those who report smoking to cope.
“Clinicians should reassure patients that stopping smoking is beneficial for their mental health, but they may need to monitor for clinically relevant increases in anxiety among people who fail to attain abstinence.”