The calming neurological effects of nicotine were demonstrated in a group of non-smokers during anger provocation. Researchers writing in BioMed Central’s open access journal Behavioral and Brain Functions suggest that nicotine may alter the activity of brain areas that are involved in inhibiting negative emotions such as anger.
Jean Gehricke led a team of researchers at the University of California who studied the effect of nicotine patches on subjects’ tendency to retaliate in response to anger provocation. The subjects played a computer game and could see a video screen of another player that they thought was their opponent, although they were actually playing on their own. After each round, the winner could give his opponent a burst of unpleasant noise – with the duration and volume set by the winner. In some subjects, nicotine was associated with a reduced tendency to retaliate, even after the ‘opponent’ was provoked.
According to Gehricke, “Participants who showed nicotine-induced changes in anger work performance also showed changes in brain metabolism. Nicotine-induced reductions in the duration of retaliatory actions were associated with changes in brain metabolism in response to nicotine in brain areas responsible for the orientation, planning and treatment of emotional stimuli.”
The authors say that their findings support the idea that people with an angry disposition are more susceptible to the effects of nicotine and are therefore more likely to become addicted to cigarettes. They conclude that ‘new behavioral treatments that affect the cortical and limbic brain areas, such as anger management training, may help to stop smoking in anger-provoking situations that increase withdrawal and tobacco cravings.’
Smoking and stress
The idea that people smoke cigarettes to help relieve signs and symptoms of stress is known as ‘self-medication.’ Stress is very common , affecting us when we are unable to cope with unwelcome pressure. It can cause physical symptoms such as headache or breathlessness, as well as make people feel irritable , anxious or low.
These feelings can change our behaviour, and feeling stressed often makes people drink alcohol or smoke more than usual. Long-term stress is also related to anxiety and depression.
Smoking and anxiety
Research into smoking and stress has shown that, instead of helping people relax, smoking actually increases anxiety and tension. Nicotine creates an immediate sense of relaxation so that people smoke in the belief that it reduces stress and anxiety. This feeling of relaxation is temporary and soon gives way to symptoms of withdrawal and increased cravings.
Smoking reduces symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, which are similar to symptoms of anxiety, but does not reduce anxiety or deal with underlying causes.
Smoking and depression
In the United Kingdom, smoking rates among adults with depression are about twice as high as among adults without depression. People with depression have particular difficulty trying to stop smoking and have more severe withdrawal symptoms while attempting to give up.
Nicotine stimulates the release of chemical dopamine into the brain. Dopamine is involved in generating positive feelings. It is often found to be low in people with depression who may then use cigarettes as a means of temporarily increasing their supply of dopamine. However, smoking encourages the brain to switch off its own mechanism to make dopamine so that supply decreases over the long term, which in turn causes people to smoke more.
Most people start smoking before they show signs of depression, so it is not clear whether smoking leads to depression or depression that encourages people to start smoking. The most likely explanation is that the relationship between the two is complex.
Does smoking improve mental health?
Although many people with mental health problems say they smoke to reduce their symptoms, they usually start smoking before their problems begin. Heavy smoking does not necessarily lead to fewer symptoms of long-term mental health problems. Any short-term benefits that smoking appears to have are offset by higher rates of smoking-related physical health problems, such as lung cancer, that are common in people with mental health problems.
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