Smoking is bad for your health. This is so well known it's become almost cliche, but that doesn't make it any less true. Smoking shortens one’s lifespan, damages internal organs, and can have a negative effect on nearly every part of your body. Smoking can also have a negative effect on mental health, including worsening a person’s anxiety.
The Most Common Links Between Smoking and Anxiety
Studies have shown time and time again that the original belief of smoking being connected to stress-reduction is actually inaccurate. Of course, many people do smoke as a way to cope with life and the inevitable stressors, but may not know that smoking actually can increase anxiety. There are two reasons for this:
- Withdrawal Symptoms - The most common connection between anxiety and smoking cigarettes is withdrawal. The effects of nicotine last a very short time, especially as a person builds up a tolerance (becomes accustomed to the effects). Because of this, minor withdrawal symptoms start the moment a person finishes his or her cigarette. One of the most prevalent symptoms of withdrawal is anxiety. So, while nicotine may help a person feel less stressed while actively smoking a cigarette, anxiety begins to spike after it is smoked, often causing a person to want to smoke again. This tends to become a vicious cycle.
- Coping Replacement - The other, forgotten reason that nicotine contributes to anxiety is because it essentially replaces your own natural ability to cope. Stress coping is a mental skill. When you don't use it, you lose it. Smoking numbs anxiety but it doesn't actually help you cope (since nothing you take for anxiety is true "coping"), and so your ability to cope with stress without nicotine gets worse. That's why so many people turn back to nicotine when they're stressed - their mind and body don't know how to deal with even minor amounts of stress without it.
These are the main reasons smoking creates anxiety. It can also cause anxiety in other ways, such as worrying about your health, worrying about how your job is affected by your smoking, etc. But these are all secondary anxiety causes.
How the Lungs Affect Anxiety
Although smoking can contribute to a person’s anxiety directly, the effect smoking has on the lungs may also contribute to the worsening of anxiety symptoms. Smokers are, in general, aware of the effects cigarettes can have on lungs (i.e. - risk for cancer ). But what smokers may not know is how the changes in breathing that come from damaged lungs can increase anxiety.
Those who smoke tend to start breathing faster or less efficiently than those that do not smoke. Faster breathing can cause what is known as "hyperventilation," which is when the body breathes out carbon dioxide too quickly. Carbon dioxide is necessary for the body and brain to function properly. Hyperventilation is one of the most common triggers of panic attacks and severe anxiety symptoms, such as chest pains, rapid heartbeat, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath. These feelings often trigger intense anxiety (and further hyperventilation), which can be extremely difficult to manage and may cause the development of an anxiety disorder (most commonly, panic disorder).
Anxiety also causes hyperventilation, so smoking may also be causing anxiety hyperventilation to be worse.
Quitting Smoking Can Also Cause Anxiety
Unfortunately, those who decide to quit smoking may also be at risk for anxiety. Due to the withdrawal symptoms of nicotine, when a person quits smoking, he or she may also experience periods of hyperventilation, which leads to further anxiety.
In addition, smoking in general changes your lung health to such a degree that you may have developed poor breathing habits already that are going to be exacerbated by the way your lungs feel when they're free of cigarette smoke.
That's why you should be prepared for these feelings before you quit smoking, and make sure you have a support system in place to help keep you away from cigarettes.
How to Manage Hyperventilation When Smoking or Quitting
Hyperventilation may be manageable through changing one’s breathing patterns and habits. A person can train his or her lungs to breathe properly again and, in turn, training the lungs can help curb anxious feelings and panic attacks.
Try the following:
- Breathe in through your nose slowly, taking somewhere between 5 and 7 seconds to complete the full breath.
- Hold for 2 to 3 seconds to ensure your body is creating carbon dioxide.
- Breathe out slowly through pursed lips like you're whistling (or holding a cigarette). Try to take at least 7 seconds to fully exhale.
Breathing in this manner can ensure a healthy balance of carbon dioxide remains in one’s system, preventing the symptoms of hyperventilation. Many people also report lower anxiety levels when their breathing is more controlled.