Many smokers start or continue their habit in order to deal with stress. But quitting smoking increases stress itself. That double-whammy makes it doubly hard to stop. Understanding what creates stress and finding healthier ways to deal with it well help in that struggle.
At low dosages, nicotine is a stimulant. It increases heart rate and raises the blood pressure. Those biological changes interact to produce psychological ones. They’re perceived, up to a point, as pleasurable. At higher levels, nicotine induces a relaxing state.
Both those effects tend to alleviate stress. Stimulation generates alertness. That gives a positive feeling, induced to a degree by the dopamine generated in the brain, along with other changes to its pleasure centers. Inducing relaxation has a clear and direct influence on stress level.
Yet, physiologically, stress or anxiety and feeling the exhilaration of challenge are very similar. The key to the difference lies in how we evaluate the external events and the reactions to them within ourselves.
Few external events, if any, are inherently stressful. It depends on how we evaluate their potential impact on our goals and values. Yet, the facts that lead to that evaluation are real. The loss of a loved one, the risk of losing a job, even everyday situations such as someone changing lanes rapidly in front of us on the highway are all potentially stressful. There’s a high likelihood those will negatively impact what we want.
Turning to cigarette smoking to deal with that stress is, in part, substituting a chemical for a change in attitude.
We can, for example, conclude that everyone on the road is rude and dangerous. But that’s obviously an overgeneralization. Most people don’t take foolish risks on the road most of the time. The risk of lower income from losing a job can happen. But we might also get another, even better, job in a day or a week.
It’s difficult to take that positive attitude right at the moment of quitting smoking. That’s one of the reasons only about 6% of those who stop succeed long-term on their first try. One thing can help: build up that attitude before reaching for a cigarette. Work on it while engaging in the habit.
Look to events that are often associated with lighting up, even when they don’t directly involve stress. An after meal cigarette can be delayed. Delay it longer and longer each day or week. Before long, that one is eliminated from the daily nicotine dose.
Build a more long term solution to stress by saving a small part of your income each week or month. Let it lay in an account collecting interest. Small amounts build up over time and provide a cushion to fall back on if the job does disappear. That lowers the stress at the moment, but also all the time you’re saving. Knowing that money is there now in case it’s needed later reduces the stress that can come from imagining the worst in the future.
Look for ways to reevaluate situations that cause stress. No one becomes stoic overnight. Nor is the attitude that ‘nothing matters’ helpful, either. Some things do and should matter. But slowly building confidence in one’s ability to meet challenges successfully reduces the odds and frequency of stress.
That program eventually reduces the felt need to smoke, and increases the odds of being able to quit permanently.