Stressed Out? Don't Smoke

A psychiatrist looks at smoking and stress

I will never forget the green and white paper that slipped out of the magazine I was reading: a coupon for a free pack of cigarettes. Since I was a frugal college student who never turned down anything free, I cashed in my coupon. Luckily I never developed a taste for tar or menthol. Even so, I admit there were times when I felt anxious or overworked, and it seemed (if only in my mind's eye) like a puff from one of those cigarettes helped to ease my stress. That was many, many years ago and the experience has helped me to understand how easily one can get pulled into a very nasty and deceiving habit.

From my experience as a psychiatrist, it's clear that many smokers truly believe cigarettes help them feel better when they are in a bad mood, feeling down or totally stressed out. They think that somehow the wispy blue smoke curling up into the air makes anger, contempt, disgust, fear and guilt all just fade away. Wishful thinking, huh? In fact, research proves just the opposite.

A study in the December 2008 issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine concludes that smoking actually makes smokers feel more stressed on stressful days, in addition to it making them feel worse emotionally. In fact, the false sense of relaxation that many experience when smoking is really just the body responding to nicotine—and the satisfaction of the nicotine craving from the deprivation that occurs in between smokes. It's not some magical healing power within cigarettes that makes any kind of positive difference on stress and well-being.

Take my advice: Don't smoke to combat or cope with stress. It doesn't work. Instead, try using healthy coping mechanisms, like going for a walk, confiding in a friend, thinking positive thoughts and eating a well-balanced diet. Create your own list of positive activities that you can turn to when you are stressed and anxious. Don't light up if you truly want to lighten up your mood.

Visit Dr. Janet Taylor's blog for more ways to manage stress.

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