How leaving smoking affects your mental health

If you are a smoker, chances are you are considering quitting. According to Public Health England, about 60% of 6.1 million smokers in England say they want to retire, and nearly one in five say they seek a habit within three months.

But this is often far from being an easy ride. And it can be very difficult if you’re struggling with your mental health. Many people use smoking as a form of self-medication, wound up as a way to temporarily alleviate stress. Trying to quit in this way can stir up some uncomfortable feelings.

According to Professor Ann McNeill, a tobacco addiction professor at the London College of Tobacco Experts and Advice, it’s easy to see why so many people are linked to smoking stress relief.

“After a short period of not smoking, many smokers will begin to experience the need for cigarettes, and other signs of dejection, such as feeling irritable or appear in the mouth,” he said. “Having a cigarette relieves such discomfort that smokers believe that smoking relieves stress.”

He shows, however, that this correction in detracting symptoms is not to be confused with actual mental health benefits. For it is almost the opposite.

“The research that followed smokers before and after quitting found smoking stops with improvements in mental illness, both for smokers with and without mental health problems,” he says. “This is important. We often talk about how smoking damages people’s physical features and this is heavily researched. How smoking affects mental health is less well-skilled and needs much more attention.”

The link between smoking and mental health conditions

While they may be confused as to the cause and effect of this (whether they start smoking because they have mental health problems, or develop problems due to smoking?), we know that there is a link between smoking and poor mental health.

Data consistently show that people with mental health conditions are more likely to smoke, and have a more severe condition with a higher smoke prevalence. According to statistics from the ASH (Smoking and Health Activity), 33% of people with a mental health condition smoke, compared to 18.7% of the general population.

Among adults with depression, smoking rates are about twice as high as among adults outside, and among schizophrenia, rates are nearly three times higher. What’s more, people with mental health conditions tend to be at a higher risk of smoking-related harm and suffer more severe symptoms of withdrawal.

“The more severe mental health problems, the more likely people are to smoke and smoke more severely,” says McNeill. “Research has shown that smokers with mental health problems are as keen to prevent smoking as possible without mental illness.”

And no wonder, considering the benefits (of mind and body) she contributed to quitting smoking. According to the World Health Organization, within a year of leaving smoking, your risk of heart disease from smoker drops to nearly half, and within 15 years to the level of someone who’s never smoked. If you quit smoking at age 30, your life expectancy will be 10 years higher than someone who continues to smoke.

Over the shorter term, increased energy, improved sense of taste and smell will boost your immune system and improve lung function. Importantly, quitting smoking is associated with improvements in psychological quality of life and reduction of anxiety and depression.

How to quit

So if you are struggling with your mental health and want to stop smoking, what can you do as much as possible without a painless procedure?

As McNeill points out, people with mental health problems often follow the same regimen as everyone else. This means contacting your local NHS Stop Smoking service (many drugs available) and seeking expert help along with a number of tools designed to help. Lone Willpower Not Recommended Here!

Nicotine replacement therapies may be particularly useful for smokers with depression, as cigarettes activate the dopamine emission in the brain.

“The good news now is that these treatments work for smokers without mental health problems, and now we have more medicines than ever before,” says McNeill. “This should include e-cigarettes, where well-documented efficacy is being produced in this population.”

He adds that some health professionals are provoking the state with disgust, fearing that the patient’s mental health will become worse if they stop smoking. But this is a fallacy.

“Serious signs of suicide research in this area are for smokers with mental health problems,” he says. “Given that smokers are more formidable, it will be important to give them support when they try to stop and work closely with them.”

Make sure that you tell your doctor that quitting smoking is your priority. This is especially important if you are taking antidepressants or antipsychotics, depending on the dosage you require.

It may not be the easiest way to go but you can make the best decision for your physical and mental health.

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