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The Psychology Behind Smoking

The Psychology Behind Smoking

Smoking is a harmful practice that can have numerous adverse effects on people’s physical and psychological health. Though many people smoke for experiencing temporary pleasure and coping with stress, regular smoking gradually becomes a life-threatening addiction.

What Is Smoking?

A 2021 research paper 1 defines smoking as the practice of inhaling and exhaling the smoke of certain plant-based burning substances into the bloodstream. It is considered to be one of the most significant global public health issues. Though there are numerous plant materials people use as a substance, such as marijuana 2 , cocaine 3 , hashish, the dried leaves of tobacco plants are the most common ones. It contains a high amount of nicotine that causes extreme addiction. “Nicotine addiction is a complex disorder, habitual use of tobacco and tobacco products continues to be a significant contributor to health problems worldwide, which in part may be related to the increasing affordability of tobacco and nicotine products,” explained the researchers 4 . People smoke tobacco in a variety of ways, including in a cigarette, cigar, or pipe. Nicotine refers to an alkaloid that can negatively affect a person’s physiological and psychological well-being. A 2015 study 5 claims that it causes several premature diseases and deaths worldwide than any other human habit or behavior does.

Tobacco consumption is associated with various physical as well as psychological diseases and disorders, such as:

  • Cancer 6
  • Cardiovascular diseases and stroke 7
  • Diabetes 8
  • Pneumonia 9
  • Obstructive pulmonary diseases 10
  • Miscarriages 11
  • Anxiety and depression 12
  • Schizophrenia 13
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder 14
  • Panic disorder 15
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder 16
  • Bipolar disorder 17
  • Dementia 18
  • Eating disorder 19

Smoking At A Glance

  1. Smoking is a harmful act where people burn various plant materials and inhale the smoke that reaches the brain within 10-20 seconds.
  2. Dried tobacco leaves are mostly used for smoking and nicotine is the most harmful substance in tobacco that causes addiction.
  3. Studies revealed that around 1 billion people regularly consume tobacco and it kills almost 1 million people every year worldwide.
  4. Nicotine addiction is associated with several life-threatening physical and physiological disorders, such as cancer, heart attack, respiratory diseases, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks, schizophrenia, dementia, and many more.
  5. Smoking is also closely interconnected with three personality dimensions that include extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism.
  6. People may experience several mild to severe physical and psychological symptoms after they quit smoking.

The Psychological Mechanism Of Smoking

Several researchers 20 and psychologists have examined certain psychological mechanisms that can pose risk factors for tobacco use. They have found that low levels of self-esteem and self-confidence, depressive mood, negative thoughts 21 , and personal well-being are closely interlinked with tobacco addiction. Smoking is considered the most effective and easiest way of delivering nicotine to the brain. Studies 22 explain that nicotine exerts an influence on multiple brain systems that leads to affecting people’s behavior, personality, feeling, and thinking. There are a variety of reasons why people start using tobacco. A 2004 research 23 found that most of the reasons are related to changing one’s self-image, portraying oneself as more attractive, and displaying one’s physical and emotional strength. Some of the most common reasons for developing this behavior are:

  • On a dare to show that one is not afraid
  • Influenced by media and advertisements
  • To appear more sophisticated and modern
  • Influenced by friends, family members, and relatives
  • To protest or defy authority
  • To release stress and tension
  • To lose weight

Many people think that the habit of smoking can help them to ease out their stress and cope with anxiety and depression. In reality, it is a highly addictive behavior that can have life-threatening impacts on someone’s mental health. People who are habituated to smoke are more likely to experience the symptoms of anxiety and depression compared to non-smokers. A 2017 research paper 24 says that the worldwide prevalence of tobacco smoking is around 1 billion, where males smoke at higher rates than females, with 30% and 7% prevalence respectively. Studies 25 have estimated that tobacco use kills approximately 5 million people annually worldwide, accounting for over 20% of all deaths of adult men and 5% of deaths of adult women.

Understanding Smoking Addiction

The smoke of burning tobacco contains thousands of harmful chemicals. Research 26 says that the significant one ‘nicotine’ develops a dangerous addiction in people. Single nicotine inhalation becomes a permanent addiction by going through the following process that includes:

  1. The smoke gets rapidly absorbed through the lungs into the bloodstream that carries it directly to the heart. A 2010 study 27 suggests, when a person inhales the smoke, it reaches the brain within about 10-20 seconds.
  2. As the nicotine enters the heart directly, it does not get a chance to dissipate. A high concentration of nicotine remains in the lungs and the bloodstream until it reaches the brain.
  3. According to 2013 research 28 , nicotine stimulates the adrenal glands to release the adrenaline hormone in the brain which is solely responsible for developing pleasure and energy.
  4. A 1997 study 29 explains that nicotine affects the central nervous system and increases one’s blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate. But the feeling of pleasure and energy is temporary.
  5. Studies 30 have found, once the nicotine reaches people’s brains, it helps to improve their mood as well as decrease their anger and stress. The nicotine relaxes one’s muscles and reduces appetite.
  6. Nicotine also activates the dopamine signal 22 that leads to a kind of relaxing sensation in the brain. The dopamine release instantly produces a sense of pleasure and happiness in people.

Our body and brain become easily habituated with regular nicotine inhalation. When it becomes an addiction, it leads to certain significant changes in the brain. The human body builds up a high tolerance to nicotine and makes a person need nicotine in higher amounts. The whole process of nicotine reaching people’s brains becomes an up and down cycle that happens over and over and ultimately leads to smoking addiction.

How Smoking Affects The Brain

When a person smokes, nicotine starts to act like the neurotransmitters that are already present in the human brain. A 2011 research 31 explains that the brain decreases the acetylcholine receptors to compensate for the increased signal activity caused by nicotine. This leads to developing nicotine tolerance in the brain. When a person starts to smoke regularly, the nicotine begins to reduce one’s ability to feel pleasure. It causes the smoker to need more nicotine inhalation to sustain the pleasure. It also activates the reward system 32 of the human brain and increases the levels of dopamine, a chemical messenger that influences rewarding behaviors 33 . Research says that certain other chemicals in tobacco products, including acetaldehyde, increases the effects of nicotine in the brain.

It requires more research to detect the effects of smoking on a person’s cognitive abilities. But smoking damages certain areas by causing thinning in some crucial areas. According to a 2015 study 34 , smokers tend to have a thinner cerebral cortex than others as nicotine destroys the brain’s grey matter. “Smoking is significantly associated with gray matter volume loss in the prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, the insula, and the olfactory gyrus.”, explained by a 2014 research paper 35 . The cerebral cortex 36 is considered extremely crucial for thinking abilities, memory, perception, and learning.

Smoking And Mental Health

Smoking And Mental Health
The Psychology Behind Smoking

There is a common perception that smoking helps people to cope with stress and anxiety. But the truth is nicotine addiction can have numerous adverse effects on a person’s physical and psychological health. A 2013 study 37 states that smokers are more likely to suffer from various psychological disorders than non-smokers. Nicotine inhalation provides a boost in confidence and a great sense of achievement at first. But it gradually reduces the feeling of pleasure once it becomes an addiction. Studies 22 have found that nicotine interferes with the functioning of neurotransmitters and exerts several neuroendocrine effects that lead to developing several psychological complications. Nicotine addiction is associated with various significant psychological disorders, including:

1. Stress or anxiety

Many people smoke to ease their feelings of stress. As nicotine offers instant relaxation, people smoke in the belief that it will reduce their anxiety. Once a person finishes smoking, the nicotine level begins to fall in their body. A 2017 research 38 claims that the nicotine level makes their hearts beat faster and increases their blood pressure. One might experience anxiety 39 and intolerable craving for nicotine. It also decreases one’s capability to deal with stress.

Read More About Anxiety Here

2. Depression

Research 40 says that a person with depression tends to get addicted to smoking more than any other person. Many people get addicted to nicotine without showing any symptoms of depression. A 2007 research paper 41 claims that people with depression often struggle a lot and experience severe withdrawal symptoms while quitting smoking. Depression and nicotine addiction are closely associated as smoking often leads to depression, which in turn often encourages one to start smoking. Nicotine stimulates dopamine release that develops a sense of happiness. As depressive people lack positive feelings, they use nicotine to temporarily increase their dopamine supply.

Read More About Major Depressive Disorder ( Depression ) Here

3. Schizophrenia

According to a 2018 study 13 , schizophrenia patients are more likely to get addicted to nicotine. As nicotine develops a temporary pleasurable feeling, research 42 says that it may seem to reduce some of the symptoms of schizophrenia or the side effects of medicines used for the treatment. A 2013 research 43 explains that tobacco may improve concentration and decrease the unpleasant hyperstimulation experienced by schizophrenia patients. But studies 44 have shown that nicotine may increase the risk of schizophrenia.

Read More About Schizophrenia Here

4. Panic disorder

A 2018 research paper 45 suggests that regular smoking is considered to be a risk factor for the first occurrence of panic attacks and disorders. Nicotine addiction can increase the lifetime risk of panic disorder by three times. Studies 46 have found that it is also a contributing factor to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease in panic disorder patients.

Read More About Panic Disorder Here

5. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

A 2009 research 47 explains that tobacco consumption in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder patients results from an attempt at self-medication. ADHD patients tend to use nicotine to relieve the symptoms of the disorder. Studies 48 show that women are more likely to get addicted to nicotine early and late in their pregnancy period.

6. Dementia

According to a 2014 study 49 , smoking is one of the significant risk factors for dementia. Inhaling the smoke of tobacco is associated with increased oxidative stress 50 . Oxidative stress refers to the imbalance between toxic molecules and antioxidants. This imbalance damages the cells in the human body. Research 51 says that this imbalance is closely related to the onset of dementia. Nicotine inhalation increases the other risk factors of dementia, such as high blood pressure and stroke 52 .

Read More About Dementia Here

7. Cognitive decline

People may experience cognitive decline as they get older. A 2012 study 53 claims that smokers are more likely to experience the symptoms of cognitive decline much earlier than others. Smokers may experience:

  • Hallucination 54
  • Anxiety and depression 55
  • Personality changes 56
  • Losing motivation 57
  • Confusion regarding visual-spatial tasks 58

Read More About Cognitive decline Here

8. Eating disorders

A 2005 study 59 says that smoking can decrease appetite and increases satiety. Many people with eating disorders try to suppress their appetite by smoking cigarettes. Research mentions that women with an eating disorder tend to appear to be at increased risk for smoking and higher nicotine dependence, especially those who binge eat and display impulsive behavior.

Read More About Eating disorders Here

Smoking And Personality

Smoking And Personality
The Psychology Behind Smoking

Several significant studies 60 have examined the connection between smoking and people’s different personality characteristics. These studies have shown the three most common dimensions of characters or personalities that are associated with the psychological aspect of smoking, such as:

1. The extraversion dimension

Certain personality characteristics of extroverts are closely interlinked with nicotine addiction. Extrovert and introvert personalities differ according to the level of necessary stimulation for personal well-being. A recent 2020 study 61 suggests that extroverts often try to change their external environment by increasing their activity and internal environment by ingesting substances. The extraversion dimension consists of certain factors, such as:

  • Positive emotions
  • Assertiveness
  • Sociability
  • Activity level
  • Vivacity

2. The neuroticism dimension

A 2002 research 62 says that certain personality traits of neuroticism make an individual sensitive to nicotine properties. Such people often use smoke to cope with their stress and anxiety. Research 63 shows that the neuroticism dimension is associated with some psychological disorders, including depression and anxiety. These personalities portray high frequency and intensity of negative affect. This dimension contains some significant factors, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Psychological vulnerability
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Hostility
  • Negative thoughts
  • Jealousy

3. The psychoticism dimension

According to a 1984 research paper 64 , the association between psychoticism and tobacco intake is the most consistent dimension. The psychoticism dimension of personalities includes the following factors:

  • Cynicism
  • Impulsivity
  • Antisocial actions and behaviors
  • Reduced conformity
  • Coldness
  • Reduced inhibition
  • Attraction toward exciting sensations
  • Low conscientiousness

Initiating Factors Of Smoking

The factors that trigger the habit of smoking among regular and adult smokers are quite different from those factors that are associated with smoking initiation. A 2011 study 65 mentions that higher nicotine addiction among various population ranges is triggered or influenced by different psychological, social, economic, and cultural factors, including:

  • Peer influence (which is the most common predictor)
  • Parental or sibling smoking
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Poor housing and permanent unemployment
  • Substance exposure during childhood
  • Access to tobacco products
  • Certain beliefs about nicotine’s advantages
  • Financial pressure and stress
  • Prior history of anxiety and depression
  • Influenced by intensive marketing of tobacco products
  • Prior experiments with tobacco products
  • Lower likelihood of working indoors
  • Lack of parental involvement
  • Low academic achievement
  • lack of cigarette refusal skills
  • Low self-esteem
  • No knowledge of the harmful effects of tobacco

Smoking Withdrawal

When people suddenly stop smoking and no tobacco is entering their body, they experience certain mild to severe unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms. These symptoms are called nicotine withdrawal symptoms 66 . The severity of the symptoms largely depends on how much and how long the person has smoked. Research 67 says that these withdrawal symptoms can be observed in a person within 24-48 hours after he/she last smoked. The symptoms are considered a sign of psychological and physical dependence on nicotine. A 2015 research 68 has mentioned some of the most common physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms of nicotine, such as:

Smoking Withdrawal
The Psychology Behind Smoking
  • Intense craving for nicotine
  • Weight gain
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Changes in appetite
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Problems in concentrating
  • Sleeping disorders
  • Stress and restlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Mental fog
  • Irritability
  • Sweating
  • Sore throat and coughing
  • Abdominal cramping
  • nausea and vomiting
  • Tingling in the hands and feet

How To Quit Smoking

How To Quit Smoking
The Psychology Behind Smoking

Despite knowing about all the health risks of nicotine, people start smoking and eventually get addicted to it. It is considered to be a psychological habit and physical addiction. Smoking might offer temporary pleasure and satisfaction, but it has numerous harmful effects on people’s physical and mental well-being. Though quitting smoking can have certain mild as well as severe side effects, a person needs to stop consuming nicotine as it can be life-threatening. Here are some of the effective ways by which one can quit smoking:

  • One needs to find and understand their personal reason to stop consuming nicotine. Choosing a reason that is strong enough often helps one to reduce the urge.
  • Identify the trigger situations and try to avoid them completely.
  • Understand that the withdrawal will not happen overnight. Your body will need enough time to deal with the withdrawal.
  • Consult with a health care professional and consider nicotine replacement therapy 69 . This therapy will help you in coping with withdrawal symptoms.
  • Whenever feeling a craving, give yourself at least 10 minutes first and try to distract yourself for that period of time.
  • Inform your loved ones that you are planning to quit smoking. Your family and friends can make the withdrawal easy for you by providing care and support.
  • Give yourself a break. Spend time with your loved ones. Do something that makes you happy. Listen to some music or cook your favorite food.
  • If you feel a craving for nicotine, chew sugarless gum or munch carrots or nuts to satisfy your craving.
  • Get yourself habituated with regular physical activity. You can also try yoga or meditation 70 or any kind of mindfulness practice.
  • Eat healthy food and drink plenty of water. Add some fresh vegetables and fruits to your daily diet.
  • Don’t be disappointed and try until you succeed in overcoming your cravings.
  • If you find it extremely difficult to quit smoking, consider seeking medical help and treatment.


Smoking is the harmful practice of inhaling the smoke of burning tobacco. It might offer a sense of relaxation and pleasure to the body at first but gradually prevents an individual from feeling the same level of pleasure. This condition leads to the person craving more nicotine. Nicotine addiction can have extreme effects on an individual’s physical and psychological health. Regular nicotine inhalation causes several significant psychotic disorders. People often start smoking due to various reasons, such as peer pressure, tobacco marketing influence, parental or sibling smoking, childhood exposure, and many more. Smoking can cause life-threatening diseases, people should stop nicotine consumption and seek medical help if needed.

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