Stopping smoking is something that a lot of people try at this time of year as they attempt to improve their health.
One thing that might be a barrier to following through with that is the belief that stopping smoking will cause anxiety. As it is generally held that smoking is a calming (if very unhealthy) habit, this is perhaps not that surprising. Now though, researchers from Birmingham university and Oxford King’s college have found this isn’t true.
The researchers took data from across 26 existing studies that examined and evaluated mental health prior to giving up smoking and then at least six weeks after giving up smoking. All of these studies involved people who were either healthy adults (healthy being without ongoing mental health concerns) and patients with long-term physical or psychiatric health problems. On average, the smokers were 44 years old and smoked 10-40 cigarettes a day. All were questioned before they tried to give up smoking and again after their attempt — an average of six months later. All of the volunteers in the studies were assessed to gauge their mental health before and after using standardized scorecards which allow respondents to report varying rates of anxiety, depression, stress and overall quality of life.
By analyzing the studies and comparing the results, the team found that volunteers who quit smoking saw several mental health benefits, including lower levels of anxiety. This effect was observed regardless of the volunteer’s mental health status.
Said the report authors: “Both quantitative and qualitative analyses indicate that regular smokers report smoking cigarettes to alleviate emotional problems and feelings of depression and anxiety, to stabilize mood, and for relaxation as well as relieving stress. This pattern of behavior occurs in smokers with and without diagnosed mental disorders. Unsurprisingly, views about smoking predict whether or not people attempt to quit and whether or not they are successful.”
To put this last point another way, the researchers found that if people were worried about quitting smoking leading to a worsening of their mental health problems, this tended to predict a worsening of anxiety, but it appears that actually stopping smoking isn’t to blame — its the worry over losing something the smoker had believed was helping them deal with their anxiety or other mental health issues. What’s more, due to smoking’s negative effects on our physical health, quitting smoking could in fact improve overall health, which in turn can lead to a reduction of mental health symptoms.
“It is hugely encouraging to be able to demonstrate that smoking cessation leads to an improvement in mental health,” lead author Gemma Taylor from the University of Birmingham is quoted as saying. “Smoking rates in the general population have declined substantially over the last 40 years. However, the rates of smoking in people with mental health problems have barely changed. Part of this disparity is due to the myth that stopping smoking will worsen mental health. I believe this research debunks this myth and I hope that these findings motivate people with and without mental health problems to stop smoking.”
The researchers hypothesize that the higher levels of smoking among people with mental health problems might serve to at least partially explain why those with mental health disorders are more likely to die earlier than those without mental health problems.
Research has previously indicated that rather than soothing anxiety and depression, cigarettes actually exacerbate symptoms. While it is true that nicotine in cigarettes does give an almost immediate sense of relaxation, this isn’t actually treating stress or anxiety. That means the underlying mental health condition still exists, and what is more, people then become reliant on the very unhealthy smoking habit to help try to keep their symptoms under control, yet all that is really happening is a smoker is feeding their nicotine addiction.
Nevertheless, those suffering from mental health issues like anxiety and depression may find quitting smoking tough because the very thought can make them anxious. One way to manage the process of quitting smoking, and one that might be particularly helpful for those who are worried about anxiety, is creating a “Quitting Smoking Plan” that helps them to carefully structure the way they quit. You can find more information on how to create a “quitting smoking plan” here.
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