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 really is bad for you, and it's something that shortens your lifespan, damages your organs, and can have a negative effect on nearly every part of your body.
So it should come as no surprise that smoking can contribute to anxiety as well. But it's not what you may think smoking doesn't just affect anxiety in the brain. It also affects anxiety in the lungs.
How Severe is Your Anxiety?
When you suffer from anxiety and you smoke, the severity of your anxiety can affect treatment. Take our free 7 minute anxiety test to get your anxiety severity score, see how your anxiety compares to others, and find out how to stop it.
Smoking, Anxiety, and the Lungs
Smoking is linked to anxiety in several ways. It can affect coping, in a way that will be described shortly, but it also can affect panic attacks in a way that can be extremely severe. Make sure you take my free 7 minute anxiety test first, since the profile is important for understanding your anxiety further.
The Most Common Link Between Smoking and Anxiety
Studies have shown time and time again that the idea that smoking reduces anxiety is a myth. Many people smoke in order to cope with life, but studies have shown that smoking actually increases anxiety it simply does so after the cigarette's effects have worn off. There are two reasons for this:
- Withdrawal Symptoms The most common cause of anxiety in those that use cigarettes to cope is withdrawal. The effects of nicotine last a very short time, especially as you become accustomed to it, and so minor withdrawal symptoms start often throughout the day. One of those symptoms is anxiety, so while nicotine reduces anxiety after it's smoked, it then increases anxiety more than you would suffer without nicotine later, forcing you to go back and smoke again.
- 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
Yet although smoking can cause anxiety, it's the lungs that may contribute to some of the worst anxiety symptoms. Smokers are generally aware of how much they're putting their lungs at risk for cancer and damage because of smoking. But you may not be aware that your damaged lungs may affect your breathing.
Those that smoke may start breathing faster or less efficiently than those that don't smoke. Faster breathing can cause what's known as "hyperventilation," which is when the body breaths out carbon dioxide too quickly. Carbon dioxide is necessary for your body to function properly. Smokers can also hyperventilate from coughing too often, as this may cause accidental fast breathing.
Hyperventilation is one of the most common triggers of panic attacks and severe anxiety symptoms, such as chest pains, rapid heartbeat, light headedness, 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).
Quitting Smoking Can Also Cause Hyperventilation and Anxiety
Due to the withdrawal symptoms of nicotine, when you quit smoking you may also start to hyperventilate, which may lead to further anxiety anxiety that could cause you to feel like you need to smoke again. 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. Thats 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 Stop Hyperventilation and Anxiety From Smoking and Quitting
The good news is that you can reduce the likelihood of hyperventilation by changing your breathing habits in a way that is ideal for your lungs. Your lungs need to be trained to breathe properly again, and you can also use this strategy to curb any anxious feelings when you think you may be hyperventilating.
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 will ensure that a healthy balance of carbon dioxide stays in your system, preventing the symptoms of hyperventilation. Many people also report lower anxiety levels in general when their breathing is more controlled.
You also need to partner this with an anxiety reduction program, so that you can learn new coping ideas to replace the need to go back to smoking. I've helped thousands of people cure their anxiety in the past, starting with my free 7 minute anxiety test. It will provide you with a valuable profile for your anxiety and inform you of your next steps.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.