Smoking and Mental Health
The importance of quitting for mental health.
Posted June 25, 2014 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
Quitting smoking is no small feat. Those who opt for the challenging road toward tobacco abstinence often face bouts of anxiety, serious depression, challenges in their relationships, and other major hurdles. Of course, these acute symptoms of quitting smoking are short-lived, lasting anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. The health benefits of kicking the habit, though, begin immediately and last a lifetime. The benefits don't stop at a reduced risk of lung cancer and a healthier cardiovascular system, though. Research increasingly points to a strong correlation between smoking and mental health.
Smokers and Mental Illness
People with mental health conditions have unusually high smoking rates. A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, for example, found that 43 percent of all smokers have mental health conditions. The same study also points to a 41 percent smoking rate among people affected by mental illness. To those familiar with the effects of nicotine, these numbers should come as no surprise. Nicotine acts as a moderately effective mood stabilizer, and the habit of smoking can help people with mental health conditions temporarily feel calmer.
Of course, these apparently positive effects are only temporary. Nicotine can increase anxiety, and the depression and stress that frequently accompany tobacco cravings are powerful. Smoking's apparently positive mental health effects are illusory. While it's unlikely that smoking alone can trigger mental illness, there's plenty of evidence that cigarettes can make mental health conditions, relationship challenges, and everyday stress significantly worse.
Quitting Smoking for Better Mental Health
Many smokers are terrified of quitting after hearing endless horror stories about a lifetime of nicotine cravings are depressive crashes after quitting. There's no denying that quitting smoking is challenging, but the challenge is only a temporary one. Indeed, new research suggests that smoking can actually improve mental health. Particularly among mental health professionals who may be hesitant to encourage their clients to stop, knowledge of the mental health benefits of quitting is paramount.
The study was actually a meta-analysis of 26 other smoking studies, and it examined smokers whose average age was 44 and who smoked, on average, a pack per day. Researchers followed up with the subjects after six months, evaluating measures of mental health such as depression and anxiety. They found that, among those who were able to kick the habit, giving up smoking had dramatic positive mental health effects.
The effects were so pronounced that the researchers compare quitting smoking to antidepressant treatment, suggestion that one of the best things smokers who want to be happier can do is quit. Those who quit smoking also reported greater life satisfaction, less anxiety, and an increase in positive feelings.
Helping Smokers Quit
Few smokers want to continue with the habit, but for most, smoking is a way to feel normal. The prospect of giving up nicotine can be terrifying, particularly among smokers who believe that quitting requires a long and protracted period of misery. Medical methods to help smokers quit can ease the suffering; many ex-smokers quit with the assistance of Chantix or Zyban. Nicotine replacement therapy can also help stem the tide of unpleasant symptoms and allow smokers to ease into quitting. Quitting cold turkey, however, remains the most popular method for quitting, and among successful quitters, it's the most common approach. No matter what approach smokers use, though, several choices increase their chances of long-term success. These factors include:
- A specific plan for quitting smoking. Most successful quitters scheduled a quit date and stuck with it.
- Support from friends, family, or a spouse.
- Replacing the habit of smoking with a healthier habit. Exercising, singing, or walking the dog can help. Some studies also suggest that sucking cold water through a straw or eating something sweet can help ease cravings.
- Identifying and avoiding triggers to smoke, and planning a strategy when triggers are unavoidable.
- Staying busy.
- Remembering reasons to quit smoking. Many successful ex-smokers write their reason for quitting on an index card, then refer to the card when the going gets tough.
If someone you care about is trying to quit, supporting them through the process really can make a difference. Here are some things you can do:
- Avoid fostering hopelessness. Don't tell your loved one that she'll have cigarette cravings forever. Not only is this untrue, but it also provides little incentive to quit.
- Read up on the process of quitting so you can remind your loved one that the pain is temporary.
- Offer to help with challenging or stressful everyday tasks such as cleaning the house or walking the dog. Ex-smokers who experience high levels of stress, particularly in the first days after quitting, are more likely to return to the habit.
- Even if you still smoke, don't talk about smoking and don't smoke around your loved one. Help your loved one remove ashtrays and other smoking accessories from his or her home.
- Don't guilt or shame your loved one, or lecture them about health. Such stress can actually increase the desire to smoke.
- Expect slip-ups. Most smokers relapse several times prior to successfully quitting.
- Focus on the positive. If your loved one makes it an hour, a day, or a week, this deserves celebrating. And celebrating little victories can make the big ones seem more attainable.
Quitting smoking is never easy, but the health benefits — both mental and physical — keep piling up. A few days of misery is worth it for a lifetime of good health, and no matter how long you've smoked, it's never too late to quit!
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Lasser, K., M.D., Boyd, W., M.D., Woolhandler, S., M.D., M.P.H., Himmelstein, D. U., M.D., McCormick, D., M.D., M.P.H., & Bor, D. H., M.D. (2000). Smoking and mental illness. Journal of the American Medical Association. doi: 10.1001/jama.284.20.2606
Taylor, G., M.Sc., Greening, J., M.Med.Ssci., & Aveyard, P., Ph.D. (2014, May 5). Quitting smoking: Therapeutic in mental health treatment. Retrieved from http%3A%2F%2Fwww.psychiatrictimes.com%2Faddiction%2Fquitting-smoking-therapeutic-men…