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How smoking makes stress worse

When you're stressed, picking up a cigarette may seem like a good strategy. But in reality, cigarettes can worsen stress.

Here's how smoking actually makes stress worse:

  1. Nicotine causes your heart rate and blood pressure to spike. Your heart has to work harder making it difficult to relax.

  2. When you haven’t had a cigarette for a while, you experience withdrawal symptoms like irritability, poor concentration and cravings.

  3. When you do have a smoke, the nicotine relieves those withdrawal symptoms and cravings and gives you a brief hit of dopamine, a brain-reward chemical.

  4. But then the cycle begins again as your heart rate and blood pressure spike. 

Quitting is the best way to break this cycle of smoking and stress. Quitting has such an effect on mood that it has been shown to improve depression. 

Try the exercise below to get some tips on how you can manage stress without smoking. 

Step 1: Identify and list the feelings and situations that make you crave a smoke

Do you get an urge to light up when you’re:

  • Stuck in traffic? 

  • Stressed about work? 

  • Concerned about your finances? 

  • Upset with your partner? 

  • Angry with your kids? 

Being aware of these feelings before they strike is really important.

Step 2: Think of how you could handle these situations without a cigarette

  • If you’re at home, watch a film, start a TV series, read a magazine or do some exercise.

  • If you’re at work, go for a walk or make yourself a snack or cup of tea. Anything you can do to remove yourself from the situation that’s making you want a smoke is helpful. 

  • If you’re in traffic, play some music or talkback radio – something different to what you usually listen to – or have a mint ready to pop in your mouth. 

Pair these new smokefree strategies with the triggers you listed in Step 1.

Step 3: Call the Quitline for some bonus support

Our friendly Quitline counsellors can provide practical tips and strategies to help you resist cravings and stay smokefree. People who call the Quitline are also more likely to succeed at quitting. 

One way to reduce withdrawal symptoms like irritability and anxiety is to use nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) such as the patches, gum or mouth spray. If you pair NRT with Quitline (13 7848), you've got one of the most effective quitting methods. Read Nicotine replacement therapy: frequently asked questions for information on how to use NRT.

Last updated June 2022.

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