Why do stressed people smoke more?

The stressed out chain smoker is a bit of a stereotype but when we're stressed, the thinking part of our brain doesn't work so well, and decision making can be more difficult. We tend to fall back on habits, which don't need any decision making process to carry them out, and this can make us tend to smoke more.

About smoking and stress

  • Smokers use cigarettes as an excuse to get 'time out' from a stressful environment, at work or at home
  • Smokers reward themselves with cigarettes: 'I'll do this, then I can have one'. The more stressful the task, the more you feel you "deserve" the cigarette
  • Cigarettes can be a social activity: a few minutes gossip or being around friends (especially if they smoke too) makes you feel good
  • You may feel more relaxed when you smoke, but that's at least partly the relief of no longer wanting a cigarette
If you quit without addressing any of these situations you just add to your stress levels, making it more difficult to stop. Of those who do stop smoking but later go back to it, most say that stress was a factor in becoming a smoker again. (Source: Independent.ie)

Does quitting help your stress levels?

In the long term, yes. Smoking may feel as if it helps with stress but ...
  • Smoking doesn't change what's making you stressed. At best it distracts you from it for a short time. But the stress always comes back, and then you need more cigarettes
  • You can still take a break, chat or see friends without smoking!
  • The healthier you feel, the better you cope. Cigarettes contain over 4000 different chemicals: not just nicotine and tar but also ammonia, cyanide, arsenic, and formaldehyde. When you put those into your body it goes into 'overdrive' to try to deal with them; does that sound relaxing to you?
  • Studies show stress levels reduce once you've stopped 

Should you quit when you are stressed?

It's true that if you wait for the perfect moment to quit you'll probably never find it. Many of us have some stress, most of the time. However, the Mental Health Foundation says that people often find it harder to quit when they are depressed, and this is probably true of very stressed as well.

If you are down or depressed I'd advise monitoring your smoking, cut down if you can or at least make sure you don't increase the number of cigarettes you have in a day. Quitting is a big change, and it needs planning and determination to carry it through. Use stress management techniques to reduce your stress levels, then choose to stop when you have the energy to devote to it, and the ability to focus and carry through your quit plan.

In my personal experience of working with smokers, picking the right moment can be really helpful. Choose a specific date; there are a variety of 'official' campaigns like Stoptober and National No Smoking Day (in March), but one which has personal significance to you works as well.

How should I stop smoking?

 I'm a bit biased on this one because I am a hypnotherapist as well as a stress management coach. However, an article in New Scientist Magazine said as long ago as 1992 that 'Hypnosis is the most effective way of giving up smoking, according to the largest ever scientific comparison of ways of breaking the habit'.

Having said that, no method is 100% successful even though they all work for someone. Experiment and find out what method or combination of methods works for you. Take heart from the fact that most smokers try several times before they finally quit for good.

And feel free to contact me via the form on the right if you would like advice about what method might suit you best.


Author: is a professional stress management coach, specialising in working with individuals and smaller employers to minimise stress and maximise feeling in control.
Debbie is has also written a chapter on helping people with IBS in the Hypnotherapy Handbook which is available from Amazon.co.uk.
Find out more about Debbie's services on www.yorkshirestressmanagement.com  or phone 01977 678593