Most people understand that tobacco harms a person’s health, but many users also believe it helps them cope with stress. Nicotine is a mood altering drug, so at first tobacco may seems to help ease the effects of stress such as feelings of frustration, anger, or anxiety. This is because the nicotine in tobacco causes the brain to release a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine results in an initial sense of calm and well-being and causes your body to crave that sensation again and again. Really, this is just an illusion; while a person may feel an initial sense of calm when they use tobacco, the body is actually under increased stress. Blood pressure and heart rate increase, muscles become tense, and blood vessels constrict so less oxygen is available to the brain and body to facilitate healthy coping. The initial feelings of stress are still present, but simply masked.
The first step when dealing with stress is to recognize it and realize that it can be managed without nicotine. Next, you must develop alternative coping mechanisms so that the next time you are stressed you are not tempted to reach for dip or a cigarette. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Allow yourself some “quiet time,” even if it’s just for a few minutes.
- Put your health first. Regular exercise, proper nutrition, sufficient sleep, and discarding unhealthy behaviors such as tobacco use can help you cope with stress better.
- Talk problems out with a friend or family member. They may be able to help you see your problems from a different perspective.
- Seek professional assistance. A licensed counselor, such as at the Community Counseling Center, can teach you coping methods to help you handle the more difficult types of stress.
Now that you are knowledgeable about alternative coping methods it’s time to remove the crutch that nicotine provides. It may not be ideal to try to quit smoking in the middle of a very stressful time, such as a divorce or job loss, but tobacco users should not wait until a relatively “stress-free” time to quit. As those in the military know, such a time may never come!
Operation Tobacco Free Marine, the Marine Corps’ tobacco cessation program, is available to help you quit tobacco for good. For more information on the program, contact your local MCCS Health Promotion office.