The Stress That Comes With Smoking Cessation

Person with hands clasped in front of face looking stressed in an office
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Stress can play a big part in why people start smoking and why they continue to smoke. It can even be a barrier to quitting smoking and increase the risk of relapse. In addition, while someone's ability to manage stress improves once they recover from nicotine addiction, early smoking cessation can temporarily increase the level of stress a person feels. One small study from 2015 found that nicotine withdrawal symptoms are associated with perceived stress.

How successful you are in managing this intense, though thankfully short, phase of the process depends in great part on your level of preparation.

The Physical Stress of Quitting

When you quit smoking, your body physically reacts to nicotine withdrawal and the absence of the many thousands of chemicals in cigarettes. As harmful as smoking is, your body becomes accustomed to receiving doses of those chemicals multiple times a day.

Sometimes referred to as quitter's flu, symptoms of nicotine withdrawal can make you feel like you're sick, even though you're not.

Common symptoms of nicotine withdrawal include:

  • Constipation, including gas/stomach discomfort
  • Cough
  • Crankiness and irritability
  • Cravings to smoke
  • Dry mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Lack of concentration
  • Postnasal drip
  • Sore throat
  • Tightness in the chest

Most people who have recently quit smoking will experience some combination of the symptoms above, but if you are ever concerned about how you're feeling, don't hesitate to contact a healthcare provider. A check-up early on in smoking cessation is a good idea regardless.

Thankfully, nicotine withdrawal and the stress associated with it are temporary.

One 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis published in BMJ found that in three older studies, quitting smoking was associated with a significant decrease in stress.

The Mental and Emotional Stress of Quitting

Apart from the physical side of recovery from nicotine addiction, someone who quits smoking must also begin the work of dealing with the feelings associated with cigarettes and smoking, or the psychological side of smoking.

When someone quits smoking, they quickly start to feel the stress of emotional loss, which is triggered by the many associations they've built up around smoking over the years. They smoked when they were happy, angry, sad, bored, and lonely. When you stop smoking, the emotions that bubble up are often powerful and can take you by surprise.

Healing the mental and emotional side of nicotine addiction is where the real work of smoking cessation lies for most people.

As you erase old associations and habits one by one and replace them with new, healthier choices, you will reduce quit-related stress and your ability to manage stress in other areas of your life will improve.

Tips for Managing Quit-Related Stress

The right information, support, mindset, and preparation can help you manage the stress involved with quitting nicotine and set yourself on the path to being smoke-free. Here are some tips to help you get there.

Practice Self-Care

Prioritize self-care in the early days of smoking cessation. Reward yourself and get some extra rest if you can. Try to relieve stress with meditation, deep breathing, going on a walk, or doing some yoga. And above all, remember that the discomforts and stress associated with quitting are challenging but temporary. 

Seek Support

Recovery from nicotine addiction can be a roller coaster ride. Having a support network in place to help manage the ups and downs is an essential ingredient for long-term success. Enlist friends and family to cheer you on, join a support group, and try smoking cessation apps for support around the clock.

Not only can you reach out to a healthcare provider for support, but seeking individual or group counseling for smoking cessation could greatly benefit you. There are also telephone quit lines to help as well and are available for free in every state, or you might prefer a stop smoking program.

Arm Yourself With Knowledge

Nicotine cravings can feel stressful. Seek out reliable information on nicotine withdrawal and how best to handle your triggers and cravings when they crop up. There are many online forums, programs, and resources that may be able to help as well.

It's also always a good idea to speak to a healthcare provider about all the tools available to help you succeed. They may recommend a smoking cessation product or medication to help you cope with the effects of withdrawal, such as nicotine replacement therapy (NRT).

Use Time and Patience as Quit Buddies

So often, we're in a rush to get things done and to see instant results from the challenges we take on. Smoking cessation is one area where we must suspend that desire for instant gratification. Addiction recovery and erasing years of habit take time. Be patient and don't put yourself on a timetable with smoking cessation. Allow recovery to unfold for you as it will, and you will find your freedom just as others before you have.

A Word From Verywell

Not only might you feel as if you're giving up a coping mechanism for stress when you quit smoking, but nicotine withdrawal and dealing with cravings can bring with it a whole slew of stressful feelings.

Don't lose hope. You'll get to the other side. Even if you've tried quitting before, it's important to keep going. A 2019 study actually found that people who had tried unsuccessfully to quit smoking experienced more stress. Just remember, though, that most people take a few tries before they successful quit for good. Understand there may be stressful moments and be prepared to tackle them.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  5. National Cancer Institute. Handling nicotine withdrawal and triggers when you decide to quit tobacco.

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  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reduce your stress.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Take steps to quit.

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By Terry Martin
Terry Martin quit smoking after 26 years and is now an advocate for those seeking freedom from nicotine addiction.