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Doctor dispels myth that smoking alleviates stress

People hold cigarettes in this March 25, 2014 file photo. (Mainichi)

Does smoking alleviate stress? That's the question one reader asked, so the Mainichi looked into the issue.

    The reader, a Tokyo man in his 50s, asked, "I've heard that smoking reduces stress and it's better for a smoker's health to continue smoking. Is this true?"

    To answer this question, the Mainichi Shimbun turned to Masato Kano, a doctor and clinical psychologist specializing in guidance to help people quit smoking at Hoyukai Shinnakagawa Hospital in Yokohama.

    The conclusion? Smoking does not reduce stress. The "stress reduction" that people think they feel after smoking is just an illusion, the result of nicotine alleviating withdrawal symptoms like irritation, difficulty in concentrating and restlessness.

    How was a cigarette the first time you tried it? Usually, first-time smokers only feel bad and don't derive any pleasurable feelings from it. This is because just introducing nicotine into the body does not improve one's mood. This contrasts with alcohol, which even in the first ingestion can intoxicate a person.

    When a person continues smoking, their brain becomes lazy and does not as readily release dopamine, a brain hormone that is involved with feelings of happiness. When the nicotine in their body runs out, withdrawal symptoms cause them to feel less satisfaction with all parts of their life, from their meals to their job. When the person then smokes, they resupply the nicotine in their body and gain a sense of satisfaction for a time.

    The situation might be compared to wearing overly tight shoes and then obtaining a feeling of relief after taking them off. But we do not say "tight shoes relieve foot stress."

    Rather, if a person stops smoking, the usual stress caused by nicotine withdrawal symptoms will disappear, and their mental health will improve. Kano says he often hears from his patients who quit smoking that they have less trouble in their interactions with other people, and while driving they are kinder toward pedestrians and other drivers.

    We know that around half of smokers die early due to smoking-related illnesses, so forcing oneself to quit is better for the health than continuing to smoke. Even if smoking did alleviate stress, since it is bad for the health it would be a case of mistaken priorities. Nicotine withdrawal symptoms last only a week at most. You can definitely quit.

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