Smoking With Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Portrait of a young man smoking a cigarette
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If you experience generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), you likely have constant worrying and anxiety. It is a chronic and persistent illness that can have a debilitating impact on your life, including your career, education and personal life.

For many people with GAD, finding anxiety relief is a constant battle. Some with GAD self-medicate in order to soothe their nerves and get through their regular routine. This can include using harmful substances like alcohol, drugs or nicotine. Smoking can be a harmful way to manage your anxiety, harming your overall health and putting you at risk for developing lung cancer. 

Despite widespread knowledge about the negative health effects of smoking and other forms of tobacco and nicotine use, such as lung cancer and chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder, approximately 15.5% of the U.S. population smokes.

Smoking rates for people with anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, are higher than those for the general population. Some of the risk factors associated with anxiety and tobacco use include a stressful childhood, difficulty tolerating negative emotions, and impulsiveness.

Nicotine Relief Is Temporary

Many people turn to cigarettes when they are anxious, and the physiological effects of the nicotine can create a calming sensation. But nicotine only produces temporary relief from anxiety, while also compromising overall physical health. Ongoing anxiety-provoking situations will soon return the person to the same level of anxiety as they had prior to smoking a cigarette.

Smoking is a damaging and expensive habit. Particularly for those with GAD, smoking can actually worsen anxiety. While smoking might help soothe you in the moment, it can increase worries about money and health, which can cause severe and constant anxiety. Over time, it can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety.

What to Do Instead of Smoking

There are many treatment options available for anxiety problems like GAD that are not as physically damaging and also have long-lasting effects. First, seek out the advice of a medical professional. If you don't know where to start, your primary care physician can refer you to a therapist specializing in anxiety disorders.

In therapy, you will go over your anxiety symptoms and triggers and work to identify solutions to these issues. From cognitive behavioral therapy to dialectical therapy, there are many methods available to help you.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend an anti-anxiety medication to help manage your worry and stress on a daily basis. For some people, medication is only a short-term solution, but others may be on medication for months or even years. This is a decision you and your doctor will make based on your unique situation.

You may need to resolve your anxiety before you attempt to quit smoking. Therapy can help you identify healthier coping skills that you can use to gain relief. Then, you can work on quitting.

It's important to discuss smoking with your doctor, however. If your doctor suggests helping you quit while you still have high anxiety, you might want to request a referral to a therapist who can assist you in managing the spike in anxiety you might experience when you stop smoking.

A Word From Verywell

Nicotine and other substances, such as alcohol, may seem like an easy way to self-medicate for anxiety. But each can have health consequences. Getting help for your anxiety is the best way to get relief.

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  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Generalized anxiety disorder: When worry gets out of control. Updated 2016.

  2. Kutlu MG, Parikh V, Gould TJ. Nicotine addiction and psychiatric disorders. Int Rev Neurobiol. 2015;124:171-208. doi:10.1016/bs.irn.2015.08.004