tobacco use and mental health
tobacco use and mental health

How Tobacco Use Affects Your Mental Health

Posted on November 7, 2023 by Henry Ford Health Staff

When the going gets tough, even the toughest among us often seek out something we think might help get us through. But self-medicating measures—including smoking or vaping tobacco—are not the best way to take the edge off.

In fact, there’s a strong association between tobacco use and mental health issues. And the connection is often a vicious cycle. “Nicotine can be a mood-modulating drug, so people turn to it to calm down when they feel agitated or to wake up when they’re sleepy,” says Amanda Holm, MPH, who manages the tobacco treatment service at Henry Ford Health. “But using nicotine doesn’t do anything to resolve the underlying problems they’re dealing with.”

The Connection Between Smoking And Mental Health

When it comes to nicotine affecting mental health, there’s a sort of chicken-and-egg question: Do people seek out nicotine to soothe mental and emotional distress? Or does using nicotine cause mental and emotional issues?

“There’s a pervasive perception that people who are having emotional or mental health difficulties turn to nicotine to solve them,” says Holm. “But nicotine is so highly addictive that once you start using it on a regular basis, you are really only trying to reduce the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.”

Statistics show that smoking rates are higher in people who have behavioral health disorders (such as eating disorders, OCD, ADHD or other addictions). According to the American Lung Association, the rate of nicotine dependency is two to three times higher in people who have behavioral health disorders.

There is also a close link between tobacco use and rates of depression and anxiety. Symptoms of those conditions can become even more pronounced when a person tries to limit or quit tobacco. “Anxiety and depression increase with nicotine withdrawal and people may notice them more intensely,” says Holm.

Replace Smoking With Healthier Coping Strategies

Tobacco Treatment Service At Henry Ford

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If you use tobacco, quitting is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health. According to the CDC, within a few days of quitting the levels of carbon monoxide in your blood drop to those of someone who doesn’t smoke. After just a month or so, you’ll start to notice less coughing and shortness of breath. Stay off tobacco for one to two years and your risk of heart attack decreases significantly.

It’s important to recognize whether your smoking or vaping habits are closely linked to your mental and emotional health. Recognizing those connections can be key to helping you quit. “Ask yourself, ‘What function does nicotine serve in my life?’” says Holm. Keep track of what you notice each time you reach for a cigarette: Where are you? What emotions are you having? Who’s around you?

Once you start to recognize certain patterns, you can come up with strategies for handling those situations, friends or feelings without smoking. “Maybe you have a coworker you always go outside to smoke with during a break,” says Holm. “Let them know you’re quitting and that your breaks together need to be smoke-free.”

Get Help To Help You Quit

Evidence shows that going it alone isn’t the most effective route to quitting tobacco. “Without any help, the success rate for quitting is typically about 3% to 5%,” says Holm. “When you combine counseling and medication, the success rate for any single quitting attempt goes up to about 25%.”

Nicotine is highly addictive, which is why quitting it can be so difficult. There are a variety of medications that are approved by the FDA to support quitting. These can help soothe nicotine withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings. Taking those in conjunction with coaching from a tobacco treatment counselor gives you the best shot at success, Holm says. “A coach will help you figure out how to rework your daily routine, address issues that might be sources of stress, and find new coping strategies to handle them without tobacco.” 

Reviewed by Amanda Holm, MPH, the project manager for the Tobacco Treatment Service in the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

Categories : FeelWell

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