The Chicken or the Egg?

Blog Post created by Thomas3.20.2010 on Jun 19, 2018

It is common for people to think that smoking is a way to calm your nerves and deal with feelings of anxiety. But the truth is, nicotine can cause anxiety symptoms or make them worse.
Some of us believe that smoking seems calming. But nicotine also ramps up blood pressure and heart rate, two physical symptoms that can mirror anxiety. Studies have shown that smoking actually increases anxiety it simply does so after the cigarette's effects have worn off which, inevitably compels a smoker to smoke yet again...In fact, the most common cause of anxiety in those that use cigarettes to cope is withdrawal. The effects of nicotine last a very short time, especially as you become accustomed to it, and so minor withdrawal symptoms start often throughout the day. One of those symptoms is anxiety, so while nicotine reduces anxiety after it's smoked, it then increases anxiety more than you would suffer without nicotine later, forcing you to go back and smoke again. Now, you're smoking to relieve the anxiety caused by smoking - and around and around we go!

Also, smokers with a history of anxiety disorders are less likely to quit, often because nicotine withdrawal symptoms can cause or worsen anxiety symptoms temporarily only to smoke to relieve - not the underlying anxiety - we never get to that - just to relieve the anxiety caused by smoking. It's like a loan shark! The interest gets paid first and you never touch the principle!
The other, forgotten reason that nicotine contributes to anxiety is because it essentially replaces your own natural ability to cope. Stress coping, a.k.a. resilience is a mental skill. When you don't use it, you lose it. Smoking numbs anxiety but it doesn't actually help you cope (since nothing you take for anxiety is true "coping"), and so your ability to cope with stress without nicotine gets worse. That's why so many people turn back to nicotine when they're stressed - their minds and bodies don't know how to deal with even minor amounts of stress without it. Anybody who has been through the diet yoyo or the exercise yoyo can relate. Any little "reason" can distract us from our newfound skills.
There's another wicked anxiety trap - we develop anxiety about smoking related illnesses, how your job is affected by your smoking, relationships based on and compromised by smoking, etc. But these are all secondary anxiety causes. We all know that smoking shortens your lifespan, damages your organs, and can have a negative effect on nearly every part of your body, not to mention your mind and spirit.So it should come as no surprise that smoking can contribute to anxiety as well. But smoking doesn't just affect anxiety in the brain. It also affects anxiety in the lungs.
It's the lungs that may contribute to some of the worst anxiety symptoms. Smokers are generally aware of how much they're putting their lungs at risk for cancer and damage because of smoking. But you may not be aware that your damaged lungs may affect your breathing.Those that smoke may start breathing faster or less efficiently than those that don't smoke. Faster breathing can cause hyperventilation, which is when the body breaths out carbon dioxide too quickly. Carbon dioxide is necessary for your body to function properly. Smokers can also hyperventilate from coughing too often, as this may cause accidental fast breathing.Hyperventilation is one of the most common triggers of panic attacks and severe anxiety symptoms, such as chest pains, rapid heartbeat, light headedness, and shortness of breath. These feelings often trigger intense anxiety (and further hyperventilation), which can be extremely difficult to manage and may cause the development of an anxiety disorder (most commonly panic disorder). Then we have anxiety because we have anxiety.
Speaking for myself, anxiety and panic attacks are embarrassing. They seem to come out of nowhere for no reason and my whole body shakes uncontrollably whether I'm with family or at home or conducting my daily business. The more embarrassed, the more I worry, and the cycle becomes completely out of my control. I can't even physically escape because I can't drive safely so I have to be vulnerable and admit to colleagues, strangers, as well as family that I'm caught in a panic attack and need a quiet calm place to bring myself back under self control. I feel like it will last forever - that time becomes infinite in my panic - but it's an illusion. Panic attacks don't have to last more than a few minutes - because I can take control back!
Due to the withdrawal symptoms of nicotine, when you quit smoking you may also start to hyperventilate, which may lead to further anxiety that could cause you to feel like you need to smoke again. In addition, smoking in general changes your lung health to such a degree that you may have developed poor breathing habits already that are going to be exacerbated by the way your lungs feel when they're free of cigarette smoke. That's why you should be prepared for these feelings before you quit smoking, and make sure you have a support system in place to help keep you away from cigarettes.
If anxiety is making you fear smoking cessation or keeping you in the relapse loop, start with the basics - breathing! The second that you begin to notice anxiety, focus on your breathing and make sure that you are breathing very slowly, exhaling much longer than inhaling and inhaling through your nose while exhaling through your pursed lips. The very act of smoking taught us to mouth breathe. Inhaling through your mouth causes hyperventilation and rapid breathing which causes anxiety. Breathe deeply rather than shallowly. Put your hand on your belly and breathe down to where your hand is. Feel the diaphragm expand and contract. Not only are all of the body mechanics correct for relieving anxiety, you also gain a sense of control - "I know this is anxiety. I know it is uncomfortable but I am in control and by breathing correctly it won't last long."
Smoking Cessation hasn't cured my anxiety but unlike smoking - it doesn't contribute to it. Now my anxiety is caused almost exclusively from COPD. But I have through the process of smoking cessation learned resilience = coping skills and although I dislike anxiety attacks, I know that they are temporary and that I am in control.
Neve Ever Give Up! Your Life is worth it - YOU are worth it!