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Think Smoking Calms Your Nerves? Think Again

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WebMD Health News

Nov. 7, 2000 -- Each day in the U.S., some 3,000 kids and teens take up smoking, and it's a safe bet that just about all of them know the practice is a threat to their physical health. But research from New York's Columbia University suggests smoking may impact their mental health as well, by increasing the risk of certain anxiety disorders.

Teens who smoked at least one pack of cigarettes a day were 15 times as likely to develop panic disorders, or repetitive episodes of panic, during early adulthood as those who did not smoke. Generalized anxiety disorder, characterized by feelings of apprehension or worry resulting in physical symptoms, developed in early adulthood five times more often, and agoraphobia, defined as an incapacitating fear of open spaces, occurred seven times more often in people who smoked heavily as teens. The findings are reported in the Nov. 8 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

"This study breaks new ground, and it is important for two reasons," Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids president Matthew Myers tells WebMD. "First, it demonstrates that smoking causes serious problems almost immediately. You need not wait 20 years to face serious health problems related to smoking. Second, there has long been a myth among teens that smoking is a way to calm your nerves and focus your attention. This demonstrates that the opposite is true."

While previous research has linked cigarette smoking with psychiatric disorders, it has not been clear whether anxiety causes people to smoke or smoking causes anxiety. "Our findings provide unequivocal support for the hypothesis that smoking contributes to the increased risk for the onset of three kinds of anxiety disorder, but we obtained no evidence in support of the hypothesis that anxiety disorders increase the risk for the initiation of cigarette smoking," study author Jeffrey G. Johnson, PhD, of Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute tells WebMD.

"This finding is not particularly surprising because a recent study indicated that nicotine appears to have [anxiety-producing] properties. [And in fact], anxious youths may [actually] avoid cigarette smoking because they tend to feel a bit more anxious when they smoke," he says. "Although regular smokers may find that cigarettes have a temporary calming effect, because smoking relieves their nicotine withdrawal symptoms, [that study] found that regular smokers who quit smoking for more than two weeks had lower anxiety levels than when they were smoking regularly."

Johnson and colleagues based their research on the Children in the Community Study, an ongoing research project involving approximately 1,000 randomly sampled families living in upstate New York. Participants included nearly 700 smoking and nonsmoking teenagers interviewed between 1985 and 1986, at an average age of 16, and again between 1991 and 1993, at an average age of 22.

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