Does Smoking Help You Cope with Stress?

If you or someone you love is a smoker, you know that a major reason for lighting up is STRESS.


What if we told you smoking cigarettes may not actually help you cope with stress in the way you think? Keep reading as we explore the link between stress and smoking.

Why You Reach for a Cigarette When You're Stressed

Many smokers want to quit, but struggle because the urge to smoke becomes overwhelming under stress. You likely need a cigarette to keep calm in the face of chronic stress from work, family obligations, relationships, finances or traffic. Even in the absence of obvious stress, smoking is used for relaxation.


This may be due to a few stress-relieving behaviors.


  • Smoking causes a slow and repetitive breathing pattern and arm movement that may feel meditative – inhale-hold-exhale-repeat.


  • Smokers take more breaks during the day, which tend to be outdoors. This ritual is an escape from daily pressures.


  • It provides a distraction and something to do.


However, the main reason smoking is associated with stress-relief is a chemical one. Smokers are physically addicted to the nicotine in cigarettes, a mood-altering compound that reaches the brain just seconds after inhalation. Dependence develops quickly, so regular doses of nicotine improve mood and take the edge off by reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms.


Smoking also causes the release of a brain chemical or neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine works on the reward center of the brain, making us feel happy, relaxed and motivated. If our mental state is intolerable, this can offer a massive relief. Unfortunately, the feelings are short-lived and the continual triggering of dopamine leads to depleted brain levels. You need more cigarettes to get the same feeling.


As you can see, the temporary relief from nicotine withdrawal and the subsequent release of dopamine makes you think you're coping with stress.


Smoking Worsens Stress


Smoking does nothing to relieve the stress of daily life. It may result in a perceived feeling of calm and relief, but it's a false sense of security. The physical and mental withdrawal symptoms that occur between cigarettes create a chronic source of stress, irritability and anxiety.


Research has found that while the majority of smokers believe that smoking helps them deal with stress, adult smokers have higher levels of stress than non-smokers. Smokers are actually more likely to experience panic attacks and poor mental health. Interestingly, those who quit smoking report lower levels of stress overall.


According to experts at the Cleveland Clinic, nicotine causes stressful physical changes in the body. Blood pressure rises, heart rate goes up, blood vessels constrict and the brain and body are deprived of oxygen.


Smoking may also impair a healthy stress response by depleting levels of the potent antioxidant and essential nutrient, vitamin C. This is relevant because our adrenal glands contain one of the highest concentrations of vitamin C in the body. If we have sub-optimal levels, it impacts our ability to regulate the production of the stress hormone cortisol.

Final Thoughts

The belief that smoking relieves stress is a myth. Satisfying the addiction simply tricks us into thinking we can cope with stress.

Understanding this is key to quitting cigarettes permanently and learning how to positively and sustainably manage stress and feel better.