Contrary to popular belief, giving up cigarettes may not worsen mental disorders – it could even be associated with improved mental health. So say British researchers, who found that quitting smoking improved stress and anxiety levels in those with and without psychological disorders.
In the collective imagination, tobacco is said to have calming effects, and even stress-relieving virtues. This is a widespread idea that prevents some people from giving up smoking, especially if they suffer from mental health disorders.
But a new study by researchers at Oxford University could put an end to this preconceived idea. The scientists looked into the impact of smoking cessation on mental health, using data from a randomised clinical trial conducted in 16 countries between 2011 and 2015.
For this study, the researchers focused solely on data from US-based participants comprising 4,260 adult smokers with and without mental disorders. Just over 55% had a history of mental illness.
Published in the journal Jama Network Open, their research suggests an association between smoking cessation and “significant improvements” in anxiety and depression levels. This observation was made between the ninth and 24th week of abstinence.
Smoking cessation, they observed, did not aggravate mental disorders in the people concerned, and may even have proved beneficial to their mental health.
“While we are seeing a large decrease in smoking rates over the years, this is not the case for people living with mental health conditions,” said researcher and lead author Angela Wu.
She explained that, in the UK, the number of smokers who also have a mental health condition has remained the same since 1993 (approximately 40%).
“We hope our results can help motivate policymakers and stakeholders to better support smoking cessation in people with mental health conditions.”
It should be emphasised that this improvement in mental health was observed after at least nine weeks of abstinence. As such, this does not mean that withdrawal does not induce symptoms such as stress, fatigue, irritability or sleep disorders.
Still, it is hoped that, in the long term, stopping smoking can be beneficial in all these areas.
“Many people who smoke cannot contemplate stopping,” said study co-author Paul Aveyard. “They know it affects their health, but they feel they need cigarettes to cope with stress.
“This is what people experience every day when they smoke – they feel better afterwards. However, what people perceive as the benefits of smoking are also the symptoms of withdrawal from cigarettes.
“Our study joins with others to show that when people stop smoking, their mental health improves; whereas those who do not stop smoking have no improvement,” Aveyard concluded.