Back in high school and college, if you were smoking, you were a ‘cool’ kid. Most people admired risk-takers and passionate students, and smokers looked charismatic back then.
As we age, people become health-conscious, heavily degrading the image of smoking. But for some, smoking still recreates a special time or feeling for them.
A cigarette lifted their spirits when they had nothing to feel good about or celebrated a promotion or won an extremely challenging contest.
Smoking does have a close relationship with human emotions, and we’ll look deeper into this topic in today’s post.
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Dopamine: The Body’s Natural Reward System
If you recently got a song and a cake for your birthday, or a public announcement of your recent win at work, your body’s dopamine levels probably jumped up and made you feel good and warm all over.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger) in the brain that plays a vital role in motivating us by serving as a natural reward system.
We feel good when we accomplish something no one easily does, reach a new personal best after rigorous exercise, or get a promotion at work.
How Nicotine Affects Your Body’s Dopamine Levels
Smoking hijacks our dopamine levels and can install itself as the highest and most rewarding pleasure for our body by releasing high levels of dopamine when nicotine enters our body.
When it does this, other activities like exercise, writing, or drawing that should raise dopamine become undermined. In short, nicotine – and drug abuse – ‘raises the bar’ on what should feel good for smokers.
Smoking as a Way to Cope With Stress and Anxiety
When you feel stressed or anxious, you want to do something that feels good. For some people, a day spent relaxing at home watching a movie or reading a book in silence is one.
For most smokers, it would be smoking to relieve their nicotine withdrawals.
By releasing dopamine with every hit, smokers feel rewarded when they light up a cigarette. Smoking also makes them feel relaxed after a stressful day at work.
However, most smokers might not know that many of their stresses are not actually caused by work, family, and life, but by the very thing they continue using to alleviate these stresses – cigarettes.
Most miss the fact that they chain-smoke because the relief from nicotine withdrawals is significantly short compared to other methods of actually relaxing.
Still, it’s difficult for them to stop smoking due to nicotine addiction and because of their deep attachment to smoking as ‘their friend or saviour’ when they are stressed or depressed. And this could make it much more challenging to stop completely.
Smoking’s Effects on Depression
A person in a continuous cycle of stress and anxiety using cigarettes as a coping tool is in great danger of being chronically depressed. On the other hand, people who are already depressed and are smoking will have an emotional connection to cigarettes.
A depressed smoker looking to cheer themselves can light up a cigarette and feel better temporarily.
While it brings temporary relief through dopamine release, a cigarette will eventually encourage the development of depressive symptoms and addictive behaviour due to the continued disruption of dopamine and other neurotransmitters in the brain.
How Smoking Impacts Self-Esteem and Body Image
We discussed how most people smoked in their younger years to look ‘cool’ and like a ‘mysterious risk-taker’ admired by everyone – the results of visual media portraying smoking as an activity done by people who were heroic and had the initiative to do things.
Today, tobacco companies have abandoned this strategy. While it has helped decrease the number of potential smokers of all ages, it has also created unprecedented trouble for the self-esteem and professional lives of smokers.
For instance, while illegal, some employers do not prioritise hiring smoking people in various positions. People may complain about hiring fairness, but smokers carry a stigma that they have an addiction and are a health hazard to any company.
In the subject of romance, smokers also have limited opportunities. People are much more health conscious today, and if you’re smoking, you might often get a swipe left or thumbs down.
While it’s possible for non-smokers to favour the redeeming aspects of a smoker, the probability is always low.
Smoking and Peer Pressure
Everyone wants to be part of a tribe or group, and if they’re all smoking, you’ve also got to be lighting up.
Many circles, especially among the youth, include smoking, drinking, and sometimes drug abuse, as initiation and bonding activities among their peers.
Indeed, it is during adolescence we all feel the greatest need for acceptance, and it puts the majority of people at risk of early nicotine addiction.
Cigarettes as a Tool for Social Interaction
Similar to peer pressure, smoking can also be a tool to make new friends or to fit in. For example, if a new employee joins a small team made up of smokers, they may decide to join them to be a part of their regular smoke-break chats.
This forms an emotional connection with cigarettes by associating every funny joke, dialogue, or serious conversation with them.
How Quitting Smoking Makes Your Emotions Better
Our need for connection to feel relief, cheer ourselves up, and feel like we belong doesn’t have to involve cigarettes. You can be emotionally attached to other things besides smoking and feel much better, calm, and relieved.
- An emotional support system: Strive to be open to your friends and family by letting them know your thoughts and ask them not to judge you. A strong emotional support system helps you do away with smoking for good.
- Meditation and mindfulness: These two have been invaluable tools for many smoking cessation groups and GPs by letting motivated smokers find an avenue to release their emotions, withdrawals, and cravings.
- Find a new hobby or start exercising: Hobbies and exercise detach you from your physical connection (the act of reaching for a pack and lighting up a durry) to smoking and change your routine. A change in habits significantly improves your chances of stopping smoking for good.
It’s normal to feel on edge and agitated after quitting smoking. You may develop a lack of motivation and give up on tasks quicker than usual. It’s also common to feel anxious or sad after you quit smoking.
Anger, irritability, anxiety, and depression are the main negative feelings associated with quitting.
How long these mood swings last after quitting smoking varies from person to person. They could start immediately after quitting and last anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months.
But remember, these negative feelings are temporary.
In case things feel unmanageable, you can ask your doctor about prescription medications that may help you with anxiety or depression. Studies show that bupropion and nortriptyline can benefit people with a history of depression who try to quit smoking. On the other hand, nicotine replacement products may suffice.
The Quit Journey as a Streamlined Process
If you’re motivated to quit, you can quickly do so with the help of experts who have helped many ex-smokers ditch the habit and use quitting aids that help them gain control during the toughest moments.
Many GPs have helped ex-smokers achieve their goals and quit for a year or beyond. Their experience is invaluable in creating a personalised smoking cessation programme and providing the right quitting aids for you.
Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) Products
These are the first-line quitting aids that come in the form of gums, lozenges, and patches. NRT products provide you with a small dose of nicotine free from the thousands of dangerous cigarette chemicals to make you feel relieved during the toughest of withdrawals and cravings.
Nicotine Vaping Products (NVPs)
NRT products don’t always work for everyone, so GPs prescribe pharmacy NVPs as a second-line tool to help smokers quit.
NVP products sold in pharmacies are made under stringent pharmaceutical standards on the manufacturing process and ingredients, are toxicologically assessed for inhalation, are locally insured, and are specifically designed to help you stop smoking.
Despite being second-line solutions, the latest Cochrane Review found high-certainty evidence that NVPs are more effective than NRT in helping people stop smoking.
Indeed, being emotionally attached to smoking can make it challenging to quit, but the benefits outweigh the short-term troubles of trying to quit the habit and facing withdrawals and irritability.
Parting with ciggies could feel like breaking up with a significant other, but it will surely make you feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally in the long run.
We know you’re reading this because you’re unsure why you love smoking so much even if it makes you feel terrible. We know how you feel, and we know that we can help you.
Smokefree Clinic gives you access to many medically reviewed and trustworthy resources that can inform and aid you in your path to wellness, so have a look around!
If you’re ready to get started, Smokefree can connect you to bulk-billing Australian healthcare professionals who excel in helping patients quit smoking for good, including using responsible vaping products where appropriate.
Click here to book your bulk-billed telehealth consultation with an Australian healthcare professional and quit smoking today.