The mental health benefits of quitting smoking: Experts urge parents to stop cigarettes

Close up of a woman throwing a pack of cigarettes away in a bin
Giving up smoking can lead to improved mental health outcomes. (Getty Images)

Experts are urging new parents and pregnant women to quit smoking, as a new report warns that there are nearly two million children in England being exposed to secondhand smoke.

According to Future Health Research, there are 1.8 million households with children where at least one adult is a smoker. The region with the highest proportion of these households is the East of England (8.9%), followed by the North East of England (8.7%).

The huge physical health impact of smoking is widely known. According to the NHS, around 76,000 people in the UK die from smoking each year, making the habit one of the biggest causes of death and illness in the country.

However, it isn’t just smokers who are at risk of becoming sick. Many people who live with or are around smokers often, but aren’t smokers themselves, are exposed to “passive smoking” or secondhand smoke, which can also lead to health issues.

Breathing in secondhand smoke increases a baby or child’s risk of developing chest infections, meningitis, a persistent cough, and worsened symptoms of asthma if they have it.

But it’s not just physical health that smoking has a detrimental impact on. It can also have a negative effect on your mental health, as well as the mental health of those around who are breathing in smoke from cigarettes.

How does smoking impact mental health?

Businesswoman looking at smartphone, smoking cigarette on lunch break in sushi bar
Smoking can increase feelings of anxiety and stress, rather than calming nerves. (Getty Images)

Many smokers say that the habit helps calm them down and relieve stress and anxiety. However, the NHS says that smoking can actually increase anxiety and tension.

In addition, smokers are more likely than non-smokers to develop depression over time.

The association that smokers have with calming down and having a cigarette can be linked to cravings. When a smoker is craving a cigarette, it can make them feel irritable and anxious.

These feelings are temporarily relieved when they have their next cigarette. This feeling of relief and improved mood becomes closely associated with the act of smoking, which is why smokers feel they become calmer and less anxious.

The NHS also notes that people with mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression or schizophrenia, are much more likely to smoke and to smoke more heavily compared to the general population.

The health service says that this group tend to require higher doses of antidepressants and some antipsychotic medications because smoking interferes with the way the medicines work.

What does the science say?

Close up of man breaking cigarette in half.  Quitting smoking habit.
People who quit smoking may find they feel better and less anxious. (Getty Images)

Earlier this year, a study by researchers at Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences found that people who stopped smoking saw significant improvements in their mental health.

The study, published in the JAMA Network Open journal, found that the improved outcomes occurred in people with and without mental health disorders. Participants saw big improvements in their anxiety and depression score between weeks nine and 24 of the quitting process.

Paul Aveyard, co-author of the study and professor of behavioral medicine at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, commented on the findings: "Many people who smoke cannot contemplate stopping smoking. 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 are the benefits of smoking are the symptoms of withdrawal from cigarettes.

"While smoking gives a short-term benefit, smoking itself is the cause of the problems. Without smoking, mental health improves on average. Our study joins with others that show that when people stop smoking their mental health improves, whereas those who do not stop smoking have no improvement."

The NHS also says on its website that quitting smoking "can be as effective as antidepressants". It says: "People with mental health problems are likely to feel much calmer and more positive, and have a better quality of life, after giving up smoking.

"Evidence suggests the beneficial effect of stopping smoking on symptoms of anxiety and depression can equal that of taking antidepressants."

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