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That Cigarette You Smoke to Relieve Stress May Be Causing the Stress


Studies Show Tobacco Use Does Not Alleviate Stress But Actually Increases It

Washington - If you smoke to reduce stress, you are only adding to your stress, according to a new review of psychological studies in the October issue of the American Psychological Association's American Psychologist. Psychologist Andy Parrott, Ph.D., of the University of East London says the evidence shows that the apparent relaxant effect of smoking only reflects the reversal of the tension and irritability that develop during nicotine depletion. Far from acting as an aid for mood control, nicotine dependency seems to increase stress.

Professor Parrott reviewed studies on the smoking/stress relationship, first in adult smokers, then in novice adolescent smokers and lastly during smoking cessation. For adult smokers, the research shows that the positive mood changes experienced during smoking may only reflect the reversal of unpleasant abstinence effects. "Regular smokers, therefore, experience periods of heightened stress between cigarettes, and smoking briefly restores their stress levels to normal," said Professor Parrott. "However, soon they need another cigarette to forestall abstinence symptoms from developing again. The repeated occurrence of negative moods between cigarettes means that smokers tend to experience slightly above-average levels of daily stress. Thus, nicotine dependency seems to be a direct cause of stress."

Turning to smoking initiation and stress during adolescence, Professor Parrott says the evidence shows that novice smokers report increasing stress as they develop regular patterns of smoking. A study of Canadian school children found that regular and heavy smokers reported significantly higher stress than did non-smokers. In a study of American adolescents, the teenagers were asked about their smoking behavior and feeling states over the previous two years. The findings indicated there was an increase in affective distress as the adolescents moved from experimental to more regular smoking.

And reviewing the evidence surrounding smoking cessation and stress, Professor Parrott says studies show that quitting smoking reduces stress. In a review of cross-sectional studies, the U.S. Surgeon General concluded that former smokers were found to be less stressed than current smokers in some studies, whereas in other studies the two groups did not differ significantly. However, not a single study found former smokers to be more stressed than current smokers.

So why do smokers feel stressed without nicotine? Professor Parrott says there seems to be two possible answers. First, smokers may be more neurotic. A number of studies have found above-average neuroticism scores in adult smokers compared with nonsmokers, although some studies have failed to confirm this. The second answer is that stress may be caused by nicotine dependency. "The regular smoker needs nicotine to maintain normal moods and suffers from unpleasant feelings of irritability and tension between cigarettes, when his or her plasma nicotine levels are falling," explains Professor Parrott. "Smokers also learn that regular smoking prevents abstinence symptoms from developing. Thus, the link between regular smoke intake and keeping moods within normal bounds becomes strongly conditioned over time."

Professor Parrott says that the message that tobacco use does not alleviate stress but actually increases it needs to be far more widely known. He says this may help many adults to stop smoking, keep former smokers who have recently quit from relapsing and help more young people withstand the social pressures to try cigarettes.

Article: "Does Cigarette Smoking Cause Stress?" Andy C. Parrott, Ph.D., University of East London, American Psychologist, Vol. 54, No. 10.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 159,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 52 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 59 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.


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