Smoking and Mental Health: How Quitting Can Save Your Mind
There was a time when smoking was a normal way of life, and people of all ages would regularly light up in offices, cinemas, bars and even hospitals. It was common for generations of one family to smoke, and there were few laws in place to protect non-smokers from the damaging effects of tobacco.
Of course, back then, many people didn't know - or understand - that smoking can cause ongoing conditions such as emphysema and fatal diseases like heart disease and lung cancer.
The information was there from doctors, but it wasn't as accessible as it is today, and the government didn't regulate tobacco companies as they do now.
In the past ten years, we've seen a significant decrease in the number of smokers in the UK, as people become more conscious about what they put in their bodies.
But, smoking doesn't just take its toll on your physical health; it can also impact your mental health. Giving up can decrease your risk of fatal diseases but also improve your mental health and make it easier to manage depression and anxiety.
There's never been a better time to stop smoking, and there are plenty of resources available to help people kick the habit for good.
This guide will reveal how smoking can impact your mental health as well as examine the benefits of stopping smoking.
The cold hard facts
Historians believe that ancient tribes used tobacco as early as 5000 BC, but the western world didn't know about it until the discovery of Christopher Columbus in 1492. While tobacco was available in the 1500s, it was a luxury item, mostly reserved for the monarchy and wealthy people.
It wouldn't become popular in the UK until the 1700s and 1800s, when people began offering chewing tobacco and cigarettes at more affordable prices.
By the 1900s, cigarette smoking was commonplace, with brands like Marlboro and Benson & Hedges becoming household names. Countries would give their soldiers cigarettes to improve morale, and pregnant women were even encouraged to smoke (Tobacco-Free Life).
While doctors warned people that smoking could lead to cancer and severe conditions as early as the 1940s, there were few initiatives to educate people on the dangers of sparking up.
By the 1970s, tobacco companies were required by law to highlight the potential risk factors of their products, and the government began to regulate advertisements.
The most significant change came in 2007 when the government banned smoking in workplaces, pubs, restaurants and most indoor settings apart from homes and designated smoking areas.
In the 1940s, over half of people aged 16 and over smoked, and two-thirds of men were regular smokers (The Guardian).
Compared with today, where just 14.7% of adults smoke, it's clear that more awareness and stricter regulations from the government have ensured people no longer view cigarettes as harmless.
Smoking improves your mental health...right?
It's a common misconception that smoking can improve a person's mental health because many smokers report feeling calm and 'in the zone' after smoking a cigarette.
However, this feeling doesn't last long, and people often need to top up their levels to maintain the calm and relaxed state they achieve through smoking.
While nicotine is a relatively harmless substance (NHS), it's important to remember that every time a person gets their nicotine hit, they're also subjecting their lungs to carbon monoxide, tar and other dangerous chemicals.
The fact is that with the constant need to replenish your nicotine levels, you also subject your physical and mental health to the harmful chemicals found in cigarettes.
The best way to reduce the risk of depression, anxiety and health worries is to quit smoking.
The mental health benefits of quitting smoking
Now you know more about the adverse effects of smoking, it's time to look at the mental health benefits of kicking the habit for good.
The benefits we're about to reveal aren't just for people with a pre-existing condition such as anxiety or depression, because quitting smoking can also improve a person's emotional wellbeing.
Let's look at what you can expect when you finally say goodbye to tobacco.
Fewer health worries
As we mentioned previously, nicotine is addictive, but it's fairly harmless compared to the other chemicals in tobacco products. Cigarettes contain toxic chemicals, and around 65 increase the risk of developing cancer.
In the UK alone, 70% of lung cancer cases originate from smokers, while in the USA, that number increases to 80-90% (CDC).
Heart diseases and progressive respiratory conditions are also common, and it's normal for smokers to have increased anxiety because they know the risks involved.
Nobody wants the threat of health worries hanging over them, and quitting altogether is the only way to reduce that anxiety.
A greater sense of wellbeing
As more members of the general population don't smoke today, smokers can often feel isolated. Cigarettes and pipes smell, and non-smokers especially are more sensitive to the odour than smokers.
Besides the basic requirements of food, water and shelter, humans are social beings who feel the need to belong to a social group. When you have to plan your daily activities and social life around your next tobacco fix, it can begin to impact your social life.
For example, smokers can no longer smoke inside and have to find a designated area to light up, separating them from non-smoking friends. Then you also have to consider that some people avoid smokers because they can't stand the smell.
There's also evidence that smoking interferes with your romantic life, especially if you're a man. The Independent published a report showing that 70% of women find smoking repulsive, and 56% of women wouldn't ever date a smoker.
It can help people with diagnosed mental health conditions
People with pre-existing mental health conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are more likely to smoke than those without them. As cigarettes seemingly have a calming effect, people will often try to self-medicate with them to control their symptoms.
Unfortunately, this results in reduced life expectancy and poorer mental health outcomes. Most people with mental health problems receive treatment from their GP, psychiatrist and the community mental health services, but medication is usually required to manage the symptoms of various conditions.
When a person stops smoking, they're more likely to manage their condition better, leading to less need for inpatient mental health services and a lower dose of antipsychotic medications.
It improves physical health, leading to better emotional wellbeing
There's a reason people with a mental illness are encouraged to exercise; it can be one of the best ways to boost low moods. Physical activity releases hormones called endorphins and dopamine, which create positive feelings and also reduce stress levels.
For people with mental health conditions, concentrating on achieving better physical health can reduce depression and create a greater sense of emotional wellbeing.
While smoking doesn't automatically mean people can't exercise, its effect on the lungs means many don't reap the rewards of continuous physical activity. By quitting, you can become healthier and enjoy a more positive mood.
How to quit smoking for good
The government's stop-smoking initiatives give smokers plenty of treatment options, but some are more effective than others. Smoking cessation clinics offer free advice, but you should always consider your needs before deciding.
Here are some of the most effective ways to go from smoker to happier and healthier non-smoker.
Consult with mental health practitioners
As people with mental health issues are more susceptible to stress and anxiety, it's a good idea to speak to the community mental health staff members that work directly with you. Doing this ensures you have emotional support and access to mental health care should you need it.
Use meditation and mindfulness
While meditation isn't a medically approved way to quit smoking, it can benefit people with common mental health conditions because it helps them relax and stay present.
Meditation teaches you breathing exercises, and mindfulness techniques, which reduce anxiety and can help people to recognise their cravings and manage them before they become too intense.
If you'd like to experiment with mindfulness, Mindful has some great beginner exercises to ease you in gently. Meditation is highly effective, but it takes time to learn, so patience is vital.
Try nicotine replacement therapy
Nicotine replacement therapy is an excellent tool to quit smoking, but there were few options in the past. Chewing gum, patches, and inhalers were most common, but many people found them too challenging to work with because they failed to mimic the hand-to-mouth action of smoking.
In recent years e-cigarettes have become one of the most effective ways to quit smoking tobacco. The electric devices use heat to create a vapour, replicating smoking without many harmful chemicals.
While vape juices contain some chemicals, professionals estimate that they're 95% safer than traditional cigarettes (GOV.UK). As the government aims for the UK to become smoke-free by 2030, e-cigarettes could soon be available on the NHS.
Doctors and cessation clinics can only prescribe stop-smoking medicines such as patches, lozenges, gum and inhalers, but including vape kits could help people overcome nicotine withdrawal and enjoy a healthier lifestyle.
Are you ready to make a change?
There's never been a better time to quit smoking, and many people prefer e-cigarettes because they have a nicer taste. As e-liquids don't contain tar and carbon monoxide, the tobacco flavours are more authentic and less harsh on the throat.
You can also choose from various flavours, including sweets, drinks and fruity blends, while gradually reducing your nicotine levels.
While e-cigarettes aren't currently available on the NHS, you can get great deals on vape kits and e-liquids, which are a fraction of the monthly price of cigarettes.
Whether you want to take control of a pre-existing mental health condition or have some peace of mind that you can have a future with fewer health worries, quitting smoking is no longer a challenge.
Health and happiness are priceless, so why not make the change today and reap the rewards?