Nicotine Equals Stress Relief? Not So Fast, Experts Say

From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 14, 2000 (Chicago) -- Reaching for a cigarette to relieve stress? Of course! It's widely believed that nicotine helps calm you down.

Speaking at a tobacco and health conference here, Alan Leshner, PhD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, cited the substance's effect against anxiety.

But some experts at the conference weren't so sure that nicotine should get the credit.

It's actually a "muddled picture" whether nicotine genuinely relieves stress, according to Jon Kassel, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Laura Straud, a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University School of Medicine, said that available human research does not suggest that nicotine has a direct biological effect against stress.

And pharmacologist and Harvard Medical School instructor Carol Paronis noted that numerous studies with animals have not shown that nicotine provides anxiety relief.

So why do so many people smoke to escape stress? If nicotine is not responsible, "the behaviors that accompany smoking probably have a big effect," Paronis said.

The "ritual" of lighting the flame and ashing a cigarette may be calming, she said. And ironically enough, tougher workplace smoking rules may make the act of smoking more pleasant; Paronis noted that individuals can leave the pressures of their job for free moments outside.

In addition, Kassel tells WebMD that his research suggests that whether someone is in the presence of "pleasant distractions" determines whether nicotine and smoking reduce anxiety.

Kassel explains, "If you're anxious and you smoke in the presence of pleasant distractions, nicotine induces a state such that your attention is drawn [there] and away from the [thoughts] that would otherwise be fostering anxiety."

On the flip side, Kassel says, "If you're nervous and you're smoking in your home alone, with nothing to distract you, your attention almost becomes more focused on the unpleasant things." In fact, he reports from some of his research, that individuals' anxiety increased when they smoked.

Meanwhile, Straud tells WebMD that naturally stressed individuals may be primed to be more likely to feel relief from drugs such as nicotine, since stress acts through similar brain pathways. This phenomenon hasn't been explored yet in humans, but Straud hopes to look into it in future studies.

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