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Smoking Actually Doesn't Relieve Stress

Smokers often see their habit as a way to cut their anxiety. Researchers say quitting does it better.

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Successfully quitting is likely to reduce
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By Valerie Tejeda

01/04/13

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Smoking's dwindling band of apologists may claim that, despite the deadly risk, dragging on a cigarette is a great way to reduce stress. Not so, indicates a new study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Researchers from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and Kings College London report that quitting helps to cut stress and anxiety. "The belief that smoking is stress relieving is pervasive, but almost certainly wrong," the authors write. "The reverse is true: smoking is probably anxiogenic [causes anxiety] and smokers deserve to know this and understand how their own experience may be misleading." The scientists followed 491 smokers at cessation clinics around England. Initially, 106 of the participants (21.6%) were diagnosed with mental health issues—mainly mood and anxiety disorders. After six months, 68 (24%) of the participants managed to quit smoking completely, and these successful quitters showed a drop in anxiety. Just 10 of them (14.7%) had a current psychiatric disorder at follow-up. Why might this be? "There is no obvious causal mechanism other than those who relapse feeling concern arising from the continuing health risks of their smoking,” the researchers write. “Stopping smoking probably reduces anxiety and the effect is probably larger in those who have a psychiatric disorder and who smoke to cope with stress. A failed quit attempt may well increase anxiety to a modest degree, but perhaps to a clinically relevant degree in people with a psychiatric disorder and those who report smoking to cope. Clinicians should reassure patients that stopping smoking is beneficial for their mental health, but they may need to monitor for clinically relevant increases in anxiety among people who fail to attain abstinence." 

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