They are highly addictive because of the soothing effects of the nicotine inside the cigarettes. Smokers develop a dependence on nicotine especially those who are depressed or have high anxiety. According to the text Understanding Psychology, stimulants are drugs that have an arousal effect on the central nervous system, causing a rise in heart rate, blood pressure, and muscular tension. Nicotine fuels the release of the chemical dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s prize and pleasure centers. So for a smoker, a cigarette is a reward.
People who are depressed or have high anxiety tend to have low dopamine. Most smokers use cigarettes to briefly increase their dopamine supply. Cigarettes motivate the brain to turn off its own instrument for making dopamine, which stimulates people to smoke more. It is unknown if smoking leads to depression or if depression leads to smoking but there is a relationship.
Assistant Professor Darlene Brunzell and her colleagues did a study at the Virginia Commonwealth University where they observed that low doses of nicotine and nicotinic receptor blocker had similar effects to reduce anxiety-like behavior in an animal model. They discovered that “inactivation of beta2, specific sub-class of nicotine receptors that bind nicotine, appears to reduce anxiety.”
Credit: Image courtesy of Darlene Brunzell, Ph.D./VCU
“This work is unique because it suggests that nicotine may be acting through inactivation, rather than activation, of the high affinity nicotinic receptors,” said Darlene Brunzell. “Nicotine acts like a key that unlocks nicotine receptors in the brain. Usually that key opens the receptor, but at other times nicotine is like a key that has gotten broken inside of the lock. Our findings suggest that los-dose nicotine may block a specific subtype of receptor from opening that is important for regulating anxiety behavior.”
Brunzell and her colleagues are continuously studying the subject and hope to classify which brain parts control the anxiolytic effects of nicotine. It will be a very significant finding if blocking beta2 subunit containing nicotinic receptors helps anxiety smokers. These discoveries could one day lead to helping smokers quit without feeling anxious.
Megan Piper, a psychologist of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention (UW-CTRI) wanted to define why smokers are hooked. Megan Piper and her colleagues studied 1,504 subjects who had enrolled in a voluntary UW-CTRI smoking termination program. About one-third of the subjects met the standards for an anxiety diagnosis currently or in the past at the time of the study, which is almost twice the number of incidences of anxiety in the whole generalized population.
Megan Piper thinks that nicotine acts like a patch that covers the underlying anxiety condition, which is why it is so difficult for smokers to quit. Nicotine supplements will only please the chemical part of the addiction, not the emotional component. According to Piper, many smokers will start to have withdrawal symptoms before they actually quit, which doesn’t help with anxiety what so ever. Piper recommends that those anxious smokers, who are trying to quit, when visiting their doctors for a treatment, should also be assessed for anxiety and should consider therapy.
Even if cigarettes can possibly benefit the symptoms of mental health problems, it is definitely outweighed by the health problems that are smoke-related such as lung cancer or heart disease.
This topic of psychology relates to me because I, myself, am a cigarette smoker and I do have high anxiety to the point where I have been prescribed an antidepressant. This information confirms for me what I often wondered about, which is whether there is a biological or scientific correlation between people who have anxiety and tend to be smokers.