Smoking and psyche

What is stress?

Stress is an adaptive response which is essential for everyday life and experienced by all, particularly when dealing with dangerous situations and environmental challenges known as ‘stressors’. The body’s adaptation to stress can be beneficial but also detrimental.

Everyone deals with stressful situations differently

In today’s world, the response to stress can be excessive and inappropriate. Whilst a little stress improves the performance of individuals, the same stressor prompts responses which vary from one person to another. Even for the same person, an identical event can, depending on the timing, provoke different responses to stress. Faced with a situation to which we must to adapt, we will evaluate the threat, the risk of this situation and the resources we have to deal with it, as well as the efficiency of these resources. These entirely subjective evaluations are automatic and rapid, and will determine or not, as the case may be, the stress response.

How do we react?

To increase our ability to confront a stressful situation, our body draws on a high level of energy, thanks to hormones (adrenaline and catecholamines), to ensure our capacity to know whether to fight or flee when facing danger. This is why the heart beats faster so that vital oxygen is transported to our muscles and brain. All our senses are alert. Today, this response often proves to be useless: stressors are psychological rather than physical; most of the time, we do not need to confront or escape from an enemy or dangerous animal except in rare circumstances. Therefore, we must restrain these responses.
If a person remains subject to stressors for a long period of time, the body enters resistance mode. When this situation persists, our capabilities become depleted, resulting in illness.

Smoking and stress relief, still a popular belief!

One of the greatest fears of smokers who wish to quit smoking is being more stressed after giving up the habit. Surprisingly, it is quite the opposite!

Let us set the record straight: an explanation is in order. Nicotine is perceived to be calming in psychological terms. In addition, it acts on certain muscles and provides a feeling of relaxation. So there you have it, our cigarette morphs into a magic wand to help us deal with stress. But that is forgetting another of its properties! At the same time as effectively providing these sensations, it is also a stimulant, similar to coffee. Moreover, smokers are well aware of this - when they feel tired, they smoke a cigarette to wake themselves up! Does the stimulant nicotine also act as a relaxant? It does to a certain extent, but the power of the cigarette is in convincing smokers that without it, they are unable to cope with stress; as they have used cigarettes over the years to confront stress, conditioned reflexes have been created: feeling stressed? Light up a cigarette!

In fact, it is the nicotine which indirectly creates stress! As a matter of fact, as soon as nicotine concentrations in the bloodstream fall below the required limits of smokers – which can happen quickly as nicotine is broken down rapidly – our brain signals a deficiency via the nervousness and anxiety which overcome us. The process has come full circle, demonstrating an absurd situation in which the wrong conclusion is drawn: if I do not have my nicotine intake I will be stressed, and consequently, I do not really want to quit smoking!

However, after quitting smoking, smokers regain their composure, provided of course that their physical addiction has been treated.

Dealing with stress without cigarettes is possible!

When faced with a stressful situation, individuals attempt to respond. It is through a cognitive and behavioural adjustment process that they attempt to deal with a situation perceived as being dangerous. On the whole, smokers respond by smoking a cigarette in order to gain both comfort and muscle relaxation.

Quitting smoking requires learning to act differently. Stress management can be improved. It is still necessary to appreciate events for what they are, understand how to interpret them and develop thinking abilities in order to manage priorities. Here are some ‘rapid responses’ to help keep you on track.

·       Try mini-relaxation exercises; these are effective anti-stress techniques which are easy to use anytime and anywhere. Learning them will be of great assistance, not only when dealing with stress but also to prevent cigarette cravings

·       Enjoy a hand or neck massage

·       If possible, leave the place in which you find yourself; if this is not feasible, mentally transport yourself to a peaceful, relaxing location

Abdominal breathing exercises

·       Slow, deep breathing acts on the diaphragm which expands and retracts the abdomen due to the constant to and fro of breath to the full extent of the lungs. The heart rate eases, its beat slows down. This is the breathing technique we use when we sleep. It is the basis for mini-relaxation exercises which are useful for instantly dealing with stress and the desire to smoke.

·       How is abdominal breathing practised? Place your hand directly under your navel in order to feel your breathing. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. You will feel your stomach rise slowly. Then slowly exhale through your mouth, as if blowing on very hot soup. You will feel your stomach descend slowly, without using any force.

·       Do you only have a minute to spare? Inhale, counting to 3 or 4, pause while counting to 2. Exhale, counting to 3 or 4, pause while counting to 2. Repeat the same breathing cycle for 1 minute: pause – exhale – pause… Here’s another option: while sitting comfortably, take a few breaths slowly and calmly whilst mentally repeating ‘I am’ as you inhale and ‘at peace’ as you exhale. Repeat slowly two or three times. Feel your entire body relax into your chair.

·       Do you have two minutes to spare? Slowly count backwards from 10 to 0. For each number counted, take a complete breath; inhale and exhale. For example, breathe deeply while saying ‘10’. Exhale slowly. When you take your next breath, say ‘9’ and so on. If you feel dizzy, count more slowly. When you reach ‘0’, you will feel more relaxed. If not, start over.

·       Do you have three minutes to spare? In a sitting position, relax your facial muscles, let your draw drop very slightly. Relax your shoulders and let your arms fall to your sides. Relax your hands, uncross your legs. Feel your thighs sink into your chair, your calves becoming heavier, your feet anchored to the floor. Now inhale and exhale slowly.

Smoking and depression

It is generally accepted that when people are feeling down or depressed, smoking will help them to overcome this problem. This sensation experienced by smokers is linked to the impact of nicotine on certain neurotransmitters, chemical molecules which transmit information in our brain.

Smoking does not morale in the long term

The sensation of relief from discontentment, genuinely experienced by smokers, does not reflect the gravity of the situation. Many studies have revealed that smoking does not improve the state of mind of people with depression in the long term; in fact, it does quite the contrary. The feeling of not being able to control the habit, not being strong enough to quit smoking, taints self-esteem and self-confidence. It should be understood that nicotine has some antidepressive properties and that its absence can cause a certain degree of depression. As soon as nicotine concentration levels fall, withdrawal symptoms appear, accompanied by anxiety and low morale. Again, the process has come full circle and smokers will pick up a cigarette, sustaining the phenomenon.

The importance of appropriate support for smokers

When smokers decide to quit smoking and their physical addiction is being controlled by suitable treatment, morale does not automatically deteriorate, particularly if proper support is implemented. Quitting smoking can completely boost self-confidence and often enhance self-esteem, resulting in a true sense of physical well-being at the end of this journey.

Ways to improve morale

Everyone feels down and depressed at some point. When this occurs, our focus is centred on the ‘negatives’. To make matters worse, we listen to sad music, pay less attention to our appearance and ‘let ourselves go’, as if we want everything to be in tune with our own misery. It goes without saying that this exacerbates depression!

Here are a few ideas for turning the situation around. Focus on the good things in life: nature, a child’s smile, the good-heartedness of passers-by. Appreciate the taste of food, paying particular attention to flavours. Perhaps even play. Take good care of yourself: style your hair, wear perfume and dress elegantly. Look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself that you are a good, kind person. Listen to cheerful, upbeat music. Enjoy the scenery and the pretty façades of houses. Take a walk. An accumulation of these simple pleasures in life will bring surprising results; a veritable personal therapy!

However, if low morale lasts for more than two weeks, it may be necessary to consult a doctor to assess whether it is appropriate to offer therapeutic support.