Most smokers know that nicotine can have a powerful emotional effect on users, but smoking may affect a user’s stress levels differently than you think. Many people smoke when they’re stressed because they think it helps calm them. However, that’s not really the case.
Smoking increases your blood pressure, increases your heart rate, causes your muscles to tense, constricts blood vessels in your body, and decreases your oxygen levels. While the ritual of smoking—and the consumption of nicotine—may offer temporary relief, the physical reactions in the body counteract that sense of relief quite quickly.
Why does smoking when you’re stressed feel good?
One reason is that smoking can be a learned behavior. If you’ve smoked a cigarette when stressed in the past, this behavior may have become a habit. Your mind recognizes this and thinks that anytime you are stressed it is time for you to smoke a cigarette. If you deny those urges to smoke a cigarette, you may experience nicotine withdrawal, which can lead to increased feelings of stress and irritability.
If you do decide to smoke in that moment, the nicotine in the cigarette releases dopamine—a neurotransmitter that makes you feel pleasure. However, that pleasure will only last for a few minutes before the biological and emotional effects begin to take over.
When smokers are in a stressful situation they will often decide to leave the room or go outside to have a cigarette. Removing yourself from the stressful environment can help you cope with the stress of the situation. It provides an escape both literally and figuratively. While it may feel like the cigarette is doing the work, it’s not. Stepping away does a lot of the work in providing comfort and relief. In fact, the nicotine from the cigarette may exacerbate the situation. Once the dopamine stops flowing, your cortisol levels will rise—and the stress will return.
How to avoid smoking due to stress
There are numerous ways to get help with tobacco cessation. Instead of stress smoking, try to find other ways to relieve your stress and replace the habit. Techniques such as deep breathing, workouts, and focused meditation can offer similar (or even better) emotional and physical benefits in cases of raised stress levels.
UPMC Health Plan has several tobacco cessation programs to help you cope with stress.
- Try our health coaching program for support through the process of quitting.
- Our wellness app Odyssey can help you learn new techniques for coping with stress and anxiety.
Those who wish to learn more about quitting smoking and alternative methods can do so via our previous blogs on the topic:
There are also many regional services that can help you quit:
Anxiety and smoking. Smokefree, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. No date. Accessed June 3, 2020. https://smokefree.gov/challenges-when-quitting/cravings-triggers/anxiety-smoking
Know your triggers. Smokefree, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. No date. Accessed June 3, 2020. https://smokefree.gov/challenges-when-quitting/cravings-triggers/know-your-triggers
Managing withdrawal. Smokefree, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. No date. Accessed June 3, 2020. https://smokefree.gov/challenges-when-quitting/withdrawal/managing-withdrawal
Stress and smoking. Smokefree, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. No date. Accessed June 3, 2020. https://smokefree.gov/challenges-when-quitting/stress/stress-smoking