If you’re one of the holdouts who hasn’t dropped your cigarette habit, it’s likely you consider smoking to be a stress reliever. But research from the British Heart Foundation has uncovered a paradox: Smoking’s soothing effects are short-lived, and smoking actually contributes to poorer mental health over time. The study of nearly 6,500 people found that smokers are actually 70 percent more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than nonsmokers.
What’s more, “Smoking has also been associated with deficits in executive function, which refers to your ability to plan and execute tasks, focus your attention, ignore distractions, and organize your memory between the here and now and long-term memory,” says Thomas Heffernan, professor of psychology at Northumbria University, and co-author of a new study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry. His findings reveal that increased negative mental health effects occur when people drink and smoke excessively in combination.
Thankfully, stopping smoking “is also associated with a reduction in mental health severity, including reduced depression, stress, and anxiety, as well as improvements in mood and, as a result, reductions in their medication.”
This is the case for Gene Caballero, founder of YourGreenPal.com—which he calls “The Uber for lawn care”—a startup based in Tennessee. Caballero’s once-in-a-while smoke grew to a pack-a-day habit with the stress of starting his business five years ago. He ultimately quit on Valentine’s Day in 2016 (the result of a request from his girlfriend), and he was surprised to find a number of mental health improvements after “a rough two and a half weeks of cold sweats and sleepless nights.” However, the suffering was worth it. “I think the smoking gave me anxiety, because I’m not as anxious as I was, and the stress levels are the same running my own business,” he says.
Quitting smoking had a positive snowball effect on many areas of his life. He returned to the gym, lost twenty pounds, and ran his first marathon last year. “The happiest I feel is how healthy I am now. I’m more productive, clear. Sad to say, but (smoking) was dragging me down.” Beyond the physical health benefits, he finds he has more time to give to other hobbies, such as playing the piano. “Not having to stop and go smoke every hour on the hour, you’re able to just get more done.”
Suzette Espinoza, a Mexico City-based writer, relates to this feeling of more time in her life since she quit smoking. She smoked for thirty-one years, beginning at the age of thirteen and quitting at the age of forty-four. During her smoking years, she estimated that it took her seven minutes to smoke a single cigarette, which quickly added up in terms of time. “I smoked about thirty to forty cigs a day. You do the math.” She quit after her same-age sister-in-law, also a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer.
“I felt as though I had rid myself of a huge burden. I no longer had to worry about wondering where I would be able to have my next smoke, or when.” Stopping smoking also freed up time she didn’t even realize she’d been squandering by smoking.
In its place, she got into tennis, swimming, and running. “I started to spend more time with my family. I had all of this new energy and time to do things with my girls.”
These positive results are crucial for people with mental health problems, such as depression, schizophrenia, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, who believe they’re getting mental health relief due to nicotine’s dopamine-stimulating properties. Heffernan cautions “These effects are short-lived and may, in the long run, exacerbate these conditions.”
Without cigarettes, I’m way more clear, more focused, a little more driven. I can’t see ever going back to the dark side again.
This is corroborated by a 2014 study in the journal The BMJ which reports that “Although smokers with and without mental disorders think that smoking provides mental health benefits, they might be misattributing the ability of cigarettes to abolish nicotine withdrawal as a beneficial effect on mental health. Smokers experience irritability, anxiety, and depression when they have not smoked for a while, and these feelings are reliably relieved by smoking, thus creating the perception that smoking has psychological benefits—while in fact it is smoking that caused these psychological disturbances in the first place.”
Heffernan’s placebo-controlled study goes a step further and points out the dangers of smoking and drinking combined. He and his co-authors write, “Alcohol-dependent individuals who smoke cigarettes show greater neuropsychological damage than those who do not smoke.” This includes memory deficits, the ability to think quickly and efficiently, and problem-solving tasks.
Now that Caballero has been free from smoking for a year, he can see what wasn’t obvious to him then. “Smoking created additional anxiety and lack of mental clarity. I’m way more clear, more focused, a little more driven. I can’t see ever going back to the dark side again.”