The relationship between smoking and mental health is complex, as noted in a 2007 study published in the Journal of International Psychiatry. Researchers found that nearly half of all cigarettes are smoked by people with some type of mental health condition, and those with mental health disorders are twice as likely to be smokers. More recently, the British Mental Health Foundation has noted that people with depression are particularly likely to smoke.
Smoking and mental health: The chicken or the egg?
It remains unclear whether smoking raises the risk of developing mental health issues or whether those with mental health difficulties are more likely to smoke. But the answer may well be both. Smoking can be a form of self-medication, as nicotine initially causes a feeling of deep relaxation that can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. However, these effects are short-lived. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes trigger a variety of changes in the brain that could actually worsen these symptoms over time.
In addition, smoking rates are higher among marginalized populations, including those who are unemployed, low-income, and/or living in poorer neighborhoods. These conditions of social deprivation are also linked to higher mental health risks.
How quitting smoking can improve mental health
Regardless of the exact relationship between mental health and smoking, quitting can bring about some powerful mental health benefits. In particular, when you stop smoking, you are likely to experience:
Lower anxiety and depression
The highly addictive chemicals in cigarettes may temporarily make you feel more relaxed, but they actually stimulate parts of your brain that can cause anxiety and depression to worsen. In addition, you will start to experience withdrawals soon after your last cigarette, leading to an ongoing cycle of chasing relief. Once you quit for good, your brain chemistry will return to baseline, breaking this cycle and lowering feelings of anxiety and depression.
Overall feeling of better health
Even if you never develop a smoking-related illness such as cancer, smoking can cause inflammation, coughing, and other physical symptoms that lead to a general sense of instability. After you quit, your body will rejuvenate itself. You’ll have more energy, more focus, and an overall feeling of renewed health. Even mild physical annoyances can make it difficult to maintain a positive attitude, so improving your physical health can have a powerful impact on your thoughts and emotions.
If you do have a diagnosable mental illness, quitting smoking can be an important part of your overall treatment and management plan. There is a powerful link between the mind and body, and quitting smoking frees up all of your resources to focus on getting better.
Less financial stress
Smoking is an expensive habit. And most Americans experience at least some amount of financial stress. Quitting smoking gives you more money to achieve your financial goals, from paying off debt to taking a well-deserved vacation. It can also free up money for self-care activities such as getting a massage or indulging in some retail therapy. And any form of stress can increase the risk of mental health challenges, so removing some of the financial stress can help safeguard your mental well-being.