We’re over two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and stress continues to dominate many of our lives. In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) says our nation is facing a national mental health crisis that could lead to serious health and social consequences for years.
However, there are plenty of other stressors as well—relationship difficulties, financial problems, major life changes, work, school, and so much more. A recent APA poll found that people are most often stressed by the rise in prices of everyday items due to inflation (e.g., gas prices, energy bills, grocery costs, etc.) (87%), followed by supply chain issues (81%) and global uncertainty (81%).
An overlooked source of stress? Smoking
Yes, you read correctly. Smoking can actually cause more stress—not relieve it. Why? Here’s what happens when you smoke: Nicotine enters your bloodstream and travels to your brain where it releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for mental and emotional responses as well as motor reactions. Although dopamine may calm you in the short term, you’ll feel worse in the long term after dopamine levels decrease.
This may be hard to understand, especially if you believe you’re more stressed out if you can’t smoke. The initial relief you feel from smoking—and even vaping—prevents you from acknowledging the subsequent negative side effects. However, smoking doesn’t negate the stress, and it’s not a long-term solution. There are many more effective ways to reduce stress. Smoking isn’t one of them.
Why nicotine is so addictive
Even if you want to stop smoking, it can be hard to do it—even when you’re going the route of nicotine replacement therapy. Really hard. That’s because nicotine is incredibly addictive, and it literally changes the way the brain works. In particular, it causes a sudden surge of endorphins that leads to brief euphoria. Repeated exposure triggers the brain to reinforce the pleasant physiological effects of smoking and causes the body to crave more. However, the euphoric effects of nicotine dissipate quickly, causing the smoker to continue dosing to maintain the pleasurable effects and prevent withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms, which can include irritability, depression, anxiety, cognitive and attention deficits, sleep disturbances, increased appetite, and more—often begin within a few hours after the last cigarette.
How the addictive nature of nicotine causes stress
With nicotine, it’s a vicious cycle. You might feel better for a brief period, but that’s only because you’re reversing the effects of nicotine depletion. After a few minutes, you start to feel worse again. That’s because nicotine makes your blood vessels get narrow which increases your heart rate. When your heart beats faster, your blood pressure goes up, making it hard for you to relax. In addition, when you haven’t had a cigarette in a while, you start to experience withdrawal symptoms which can also increase your stress levels.
Additional ways stress can impact mental health
When stress becomes overwhelming and prolonged, you’re at greater risk for anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. You’re also at greater risk for medical problems. That’s because long-term stress causes overexposure to cortisol, epinephrine, and other stress hormones.
Persistent surges of epinephrine can damage blood vessels and arteries and lead to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. Elevated cortisol levels contribute to the buildup of fat tissue and weight gain. Other medical problems that can occur because of chronic stress include sleep disturbances, chronic pain, muscle tension, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, a weakened immune system, and difficulty conceiving.
Stress isn’t going away any time soon - but there are steps you can take to be healthier
Relaxation, physical activity, and social support are all critical. So is smoking cessation. In fact, smoking may be a short-term solution, but researchers agree it won’t help you feel better in the long run. What’s worse is that you’re putting your health at more risk than you once thought.
The good news is that this cycle of stress isn’t permanent, and it can be solved by quitting. However, as with anything in life, making a major change can be daunting, and quitting smoking is no different.