Stress and Smoking —Fred H. Kelley


Although you probably didn’t start smoking to relieve stress, chances are good that you now continue to smoke, in part, to manage your stress levels.

It’s true that smoking can provide you with a temporary feeling of stress relief. Nicotine reaches the brain in just 7 seconds, twice as fast as heroin injected into the vein. The resulting chemical reactions create a temporary change in brain chemistry and are often experienced by smokers as pleasure, lowered anxiety and alertness. Every puff you take reinforces this drug addiction. When the drug’s effect begins to “wear off” you experience withdrawal, with accompanying anxiety and stress. You reach for another cigarette and take a puff. The stress melts away, almost magically, instantly, again reinforcing your addiction.

So, while smoking does truly help reduce stress, the stress may be coming partially from withdrawal feelings that non-smokers never experience. In other words, the stress comes from smoking itself. The “stress relief” wouldn’t be necessary if you weren’t smoking. It’s a vicious circle.

You should also note the many stresses that smoking places on your body. The moment you begin smoking, your respiratory rate increases, causing your lungs to work harder than necessary. Your heart beat increases, often dramatically, as soon as you smoke. Try taking your pulse before you smoke a cigarette, then immediately after your first few puffs. You may be shocked at the increase. Heart attack, anyone?

Smoking constricts blood vessels in the largest organ in your body, your skin. The result is a reduced level of oxygen delivered to your other organs, and increased chance of wrinkled skin.

The list of stresses goes on and on, but you already know, consciously, that smoking is harmful. So, how can you reduce stress in your life and your body, without smoking to “relieve” your stress?

The first thing to realize is that non-smokers deal with stress every day, without blinking. They don’t reach for a cigarette, nor do they have any cravings for one. Are you jealous? You can reach that point in your life very soon!

Make sure you understand your stress. Know what causes it (phone calls, slow traffic, a demanding boss, etc.) and learn ways to avoid the causes or at least deal with them in a way that reduces the stress normally associated with the cause. Know how you react when you are stressed. Some people don’t realize they are stressed until they have reached the boiling point. Common indicators of stress include feeling sick to your stomach, headaches, excessive sweat, irritability, overeating and, of course, smoking. Watch for the signs that you are stressed so you can act to reduce the stress once you recognize it.

Part of the stress relief techniques you currently employ is your regular smoking breaks. The simple act of getting away from your work is a great stress reliever. You can still take your smoking break, just do it without smoking and don’t take your break with other smokers! Go for a short walk, walk up and down a flight of stairs, clean out your car, clean out your desk, etc. etc. There are a million diversions that can take you out of your stressful situation long enough for you to get your wits back. Make a list of smoking-break alternatives that you can do when you need a diversion.

Reducing stress in your life can be a fun, rewarding and relaxing activity. Some simple ways to reduce stress include:

  • Exercise. The benefits of exercise are nearly too numerous to list. You’ll lower your stress, improve your health, self-esteem, mental acuity and physical appearance, and improve your chances for quitting smoking when you exercise. Consult with your doctor to create an exercise plan AND a smoking cessation plan.
  • Plan “me time” one hour each day and at least one entire evening per week. If you don’t already use a calendar of some type to plan your days, pickup a simple planner and begin marking down one hour blocks each day for yourself where you will do whatever you want to do, as long as it isn’t work related and doesn’t stress you out. For example, don’t plan to do your taxes during your “me time” unless you just love that kind of work. (It’s possible that getting your taxes finished might relieve huge amounts of stress, so don’t totally rule this out!). Then one day each week, take an entire evening to relax and get totally away from work and stressful activities and responsibilities.
  • Breathe deeply. Our bodies crave oxygen. They must have it to sustain life. Sit quietly for five to ten minutes in a comfortable chair. Breathe deeply and slowly, in through your nose. Count slowly to 10 as you breathe in. Then hold your breath to the count of 20. Notice how good that oxygen feels to your lungs and body. Notice the feeling of warmth that permeates your body as you hold it. Now slowly release your breath through your mouth. Keep breathing out, to the count of 20. Repeat this for five to ten minutes. Try it with your eyes closed. You may find this so relaxing that your mind begins to wander. You may even fall asleep. This is highly relaxing and a great stress buster.
  • Spend time with people you enjoy. Make time for your friends and family. Do relaxing activities with them, but be sure to avoid other smokers whenever possible.
  • Develop your own list of stress-relieving activities, suited to your taste and previous stress-relieving experiences. You know what helps you relax. Write it down and refer to it when you feel stressed.

Stress affects every person, every day. How you deal with stress determines your effectiveness at work and at home, your physical and mental health, plus so much more. Take control of stress in your life and you’ll find that quitting smoking may be a whole lot easier!

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