Stressed man smoking a cigarette

Can Nicotine Cause Anxiety?

A stressful day or an anxiety-inducing event may sometimes cause you to reach for a cigarette. While smoking is thought to calm nerves, it may actually be doing the exact opposite in the long run. Smoking may seem like a good short-term solution for your anxiety, but it can also be the reason while you're feeling anxious in the first place.

Are cigarettes causing your anxiety? Learn more about the connection between nicotine and anxiety and how you can feel calm without cigarettes.

What Is Anxiety?

It's likely that you've felt anxious at some point in your life, as it is a common human condition. Anxiety is a feeling of fear, dread or uneasiness that can often be a reaction to stress.1 You may also feel physical symptoms such as sweating, restlessness, tension and rapid heartbeat.1 Certain situations can cause you to feel anxious, such as studying for a difficult test or making an important decision.1

Anxiety isn't always a bad thing, as it can give you a boost of energy and help you focus.1 However, constant feelings of anxiety may be the sign of an anxiety disorder. Your symptoms may vary depending on the type of anxiety disorder that you have, but they all share some similar signs. Common symptoms of anxiety disorders include anxious thoughts that are hard to control and get worse over time, unexplained aches and pains, shortness of breath and avoiding everyday activities.1 If you think you have an anxiety disorder, talk to your healthcare provider about getting a diagnosis.1

How Does Smoking Affect Your Mental Health?

We often hear about how smoking affects your body and your physical health. Smoking can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, lung cancer, oral health problems and a variety of other health conditions.2 However, smoking can greatly affect your mental health as well, especially to those who already have mental health conditions.2 Smoking can worsen your anxiety, stress and depression over time.2 Despite these severe side effects, people with mental health conditions may sometimes feel drawn to cigarettes. The nicotine found in cigarettes can alter your mood in a way that covers up symptoms, which can reinforce the use of cigarettes in people with mental health conditions.2 Smoking can also interact with psychiatric medications and decrease the effectiveness of them, making it harder to deal with your condition.2

Mental health conditions may also make it harder to quit smoking. People with mental illnesses are at a greater risk for a smoking relapse, even after a year of quitting.2

Why Does it Feel Like Smoking Helps with Anxiety?

People who smoke may often feel a strong urge to use cigarettes when they are anxious. Nicotine is a highly addictive substance and can lead to withdrawal symptoms if you aren’t consistently using it.3 When you smoke, nicotine binds to certain receptors in your brain that cause it to release a chemical called dopamine.3 Dopamine is a neurohormone that makes you feel good and continues to get released as you use nicotine products.3 As you smoke more, your brain may mask your feelings of anxiety.

Why Does the Thought of Quitting Make Me Anxious?

There are so many benefits to quitting smoking, and quitting is a good idea for anyone. Despite how good it is to quit, the process of quitting can be extremely difficult and it's normal to feel nervous at first. After all, quitting smoking is a big change that requires many steps which can seem overwhelming to think about. Plus, anxiety and depression are also common nicotine withdrawal symptoms, which can make it seem more nerve-wracking to quit.3 Withdrawal symptoms can last for a few days or even several weeks and tend to peak on your second or third day of quitting, but they become easier to manage with each day.3

Tips for Relieving Anxiety without Cigarettes

The next time you feel anxious because of your withdrawal symptoms, try these tips to feel calm again:4

  • Get some exercise: Exercising daily can help you maintain your health and reduce anxiety. Doing a quick jog or a workout that you find enjoyable can help you feel less anxious.
  • Sleep well: Getting good sleep can help your body recover from anxiety and stress.
  • Identify your anxiety triggers: Make a note of the times you feel anxious to see if there's a pattern. This will help you identify what's causing your anxiety and make it easier to talk about it.
  • Take deep breaths and relax: Using relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation can help you stay calm while waiting for your withdrawal symptoms to pass.
  • Eat balanced meals: Try not to skip meals, and snack on some healthy snacks that boost energy.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine: Alcohol and caffeine consumption can make you feel more anxious and trigger panic attacks. If you do drink alcohol or use caffeine, try to keep it at a minimum.

Another great way to cope with your nicotine withdrawal symptoms is to use nicotine replacement therapy, or NRT products.

  1. Anxiety. MedlinePlus. Accessed 10/11/2022.
  2. Smoking. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Accessed 10/11/2022.
  3. Nicotine Withdrawal. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed 10/11/2022.
  4. Tips and Strategies to Manage Anxiety and Stress. Anxiety & Depression Association of America. Accessed 10/11/2022.