Nicotine is one of the most addictive chemicals known to humans. But why is it so appealing in the first place? And how does nicotine dependence affect mental health?
Many nicotine users ignore the emotional or psychological aspects of nicotine dependence, even though these may outweigh physical dependence. Nicotine has both physical and mental effects that make it such an addictive drug.
“Please do not start smoking if you’re not. And if you are smoking, please try to stop.” – Sulman Aziz Mirza, MD (Addiction Medicine Specialist)
Nicotine is a psychoactive chemical found in cigarettes, vapes, and other tobacco products.
When you use tobacco or nicotine vaping products, nicotine enters into your bloodstream. It then travels to your brain, where it causes a release of dopamine–responsible for the pleasurable effects of tobacco products.
In addition to the dopamine aspect of addiction, nicotine use is often a form of self medication. Individuals with neurological or mental health conditions may gravitate toward nicotine due to its impact on troubling symptoms (regardless of the known risk).
The psychological dependence on nicotine is caused by its positive effects on mood and behavior. For those struggling with mental health, nicotine can–again–be a form of self medication, relieving symptoms. This emotional relief adds to the drug’s addictive nature and why many people find it difficult to quit.
One of the worst parts of nicotine dependence is that we may come to feel we cannot live our life normally unless we smoke. We may connect smoking with work, creativity, relaxation or communication. In this way, smoking easily becomes a habit, even though we are aware that it makes us sick.
Using nicotine often starts due to a person’s resourcefulness. Initially, it’s a tool to get through challenges, big or small. Financial stress, burnout, repetitive work, conflict, or trauma.
While smoking may be an attempt at self-medication, it may not even create as many benefits as folks tend to think. According to the NIH: “Since the 1980s, many providers have believed that people with schizophrenia smoke to obtain relief from symptoms like poor concentration, low mood, and stress. But research is now showing that smoking is associated with worse behavioral and physical health outcomes in people with mental illness, and quitting smoking is showing clear benefits for this population.”
Nicotine is especially alluring if you’re self-medicating a mental health condition. However, if you’re self-medicating with nicotine, a switch to other tools may help you quit.
If you experience any of the following and already use nicotine, treating your underlying mental health symptoms may ease the temptation to smoke–so that you can achieve a better quality of life, without further health damage.
If we think about all the so-called benefits or pleasures of smoking, we might end up reciting a list that we didn’t even create, that does not belong to us, but was imposed on us. We might be just echoing what the big tobacco companies want us to believe. After all, Big Tobacco spends an unbelievable amount on changing public opinion in America – almost 1 million dollars spent per hour, all the way back in 2017. That number has likely only grown in the meantime.
Throughout the years, big tobacco companies have:
If you feel like gaining some perspective, you may want to check out these very eerie ads. Let them set in, and rethink the statement “cigarettes make me feel calmer”. How can we be sure that many of the sensations and benefits of smoking have not been part of an advertising campaign?
And if you feel it’s time to dig a little deeper into the nasty strategies of tobacco companies, here are 10 really bad things the tobacco industry has done to get you to smoke, including promoting smoking as if it were a game.
Let’s keep in mind they even claimed that nicotine was not harmful.
The possible positive effects of nicotine are short lived, whereas the negative effects take place from the very moment you take the first puff and extend until the very last day of your life.
The most common reason people smoke is for relaxation. Interestingly enough, some of this relaxation may come from soothing the stress and discomfort of nicotine withdrawal. Nicotine dependence perpetuates the problems that smoking can supposedly “fix.”
Even though smoking can be so deadly, it’s difficult for many people to quit. Withdrawal symptoms may be extreme and distressing, to say the least. The common symptoms of withdrawal are usually:
Nicotine may seem to help with some mental health symptoms (like those associated with ADHD). However, in the long run, nicotine dependence makes you more likely to feel pressure, anxiety, financial stress, physical symptoms, and desperation – none of which help with mental health.
Relying on nicotine can also take away a person’s sense of agency, or the belief that they have power over their situation. If you feel imprisoned by nicotine addiction, it’s hard to improve your mental and emotional state.
The Guardian shares in an article that “for cigarettes, it took an average 30 years for dependent smokers to quit.” It doesn’t have to take you 30 years to quit smoking. The data just shows that for the majority of smokers it might take more than one attempt before succeeding. So there’s no reason to beat yourself up over a failed quitting attempt.
Take the pressure off yourself, and take small steps toward change. To start, it is worth reflecting on what lays at the core of your habit, so that you can cut the root cause. Is it loneliness? Stress? Depression? Anxiety? Nicotine cannot solve any of these issues. It may even make them worse in the end.
One of the main challenges when facing nicotine addiction is that nicotine penetrates each bit of life. Is there a reason to celebrate? Let’s celebrate with a puff. Is there a reason to be upset? Let’s feel better with a puff.
So, how can you replace nicotine’s positive effects in each area of life that it touches? Below are some ideas.
Do high intensity exercise (even for a short amount of time)
In the time you’d use to take a smoke break at work, try jogging around the block instead. This sounds silly, but exercise addresses both the psychological and physical nicotine withdrawal processes.
A quick burst of exercise will keep you occupied and may help release neurotransmitters that help you feel more energized.
Try relaxation techniques
If smoking was your go-to when you were stressed, and now you’re very stressed because you’re going through withdrawal, rewrite the story. This could be an opportunity to find other ways to get in tune with your feelings and your body, ways that are beneficial to you in the short term, and in the long run.
Unravel the lies
Sometimes, when we desire something very intensely, we get obsessed over it. For example, we want to paint and we spend hours reading about our favorite painters, their lives, techniques and motivations. If our desire is to quit smoking for good, we could use our brainpower to get involved with the whole process of quitting, success stories, and the lies that the tobacco industry has planted in our heads.
There have been plenty of campaigns to help people quit smoking. And the amount of former smokers willing to share their tips and their stories is outrageous.Get to know their tips. And try to quit.
Additionally, there is a myriad of techniques and strategies that have served plenty of people in the past. You might find one that fits well with your personality and lifestyle.
Support groups are great at helping people reach their goals. They can provide you with new coping skills, make you feel understood, decrease your feelings of isolation, and keep you motivated.
Online support groups may feel even more welcome than traditional in-person meetings. Having 24/7, on-demand, and anonymous access to others who know what you’re going through may help you “stay the course.”
As always, human connection can help lighten up a difficult experience like nicotine dependence. Others’ perspectives may add some laughs to the process.
Quitting nicotine is not easy, nor can we expect it to be fun. But, the care of others can provide a break and encouragement for walking the path.