Free Your Mind: Quit Smoking and Start Exercising to Overcome Anxiety
By John Madden Posted July 24, 2013
Anxiety disorders affect 18 percent of Americans every year, with one in five of those cases being considered severe. Studies have shown that smoking cigarettes can contribute to anxiety and even lead to future disorders in adolescent smokers. Fortunately, new research suggests quitting smoking along with adequate exercise can calm many of symptoms sufferers deal with on a daily basis.
Credit: National Institute of Public Health
A few weeks ago, a reddit user submitted a self discussion on the topic of vaping and anxiety to the electronic cigarette subreddit. The user /u/brdistheword talked about dealing with panic attacks smoking cigarettes to deal with anxiety. However, he also noted that smoking during an attack only made things worse. Fortunately, after switching to vaping three months ago he (or she) has been free from any major episodes of panic.
I too was diagnosed with panic disorder a little over a year ago, right before I tried my first electronic cigarette. After smoking a cigarette one day, I thought I was having an asthma attack and started hyperventilating. Upon conducting zero research I concluded that cigarettes were one of the leading causes of my attacks.
The first couple of e-cigs I tried were cheap and didn't really produce much vapor. However once I purchased a variable voltage eGo model from my local vape shop, my cigarette usage was drastically cut down until I ultimately quit. And I haven't had any major bouts with anxiety or panic since the beginning of last October. What was originally just an arbitrary hypothesis has become a full blown theory.
Smoking Proven to Cause Anxiety
While cigarette smoking is often used to relieve tension and stress, studies have found it can conversely increase the risk of developing anxiety disorders. Quitting smoking or never starting the first place are the obvious counteractive measures, but for most smokers those options just aren't feasible. Fortunately it seems as though switching from smoking to vaping wards of most of the symptoms of anxiety and panic disorder.
Panic attacks can be extremely debilitating for those suffering with the anxiety disorder. Symptoms can mimic that of a heart or asthma attack and lead to unnecessary hospitalization. Anxiety disorders in general can cause worry and unrealistic fear in those it afflicts. Causes can range from genetic predispositions, trauma, high stress, taking certain medications, stimulants, and substance abuse including cigarette smoking.
That's right, in the year 2000, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study involving 668 adolescents found that those who smoked at least a pack a day were more than 12 times more likely to develop panic disorder and over 5 times more likely to have generalized anxiety and agoraphobia during early adulthood.
Credit: The Journal of American Medical Association
Theories as to Why
The connection between smoking and psychological disorders is not fully understood, however theories suggest it may be contributed to the carbon monoxide and other chemicals in cigarettes causing respiratory issues. Shortness of breath is one of the most common symptoms of panic attacks and may contribute to anxiety or even the feeling of suffocating.
Smoking can also increase heart rate and blood pressure causing those with anxiety disorder to feel like they may be having an attack. And nicotine itself is a stimulant, similar to caffeine. It increases alertness and may make panic sufferers more likely to overreact to body sensations and common stress.
And because nicotine is a stimulant and tobacco smoke causes airway resistance and other respiratory conditions, cigarettes can also cause sleep disturbances. Sleep deprivation can amplify anticipatory activity in the brain. A 2007 study published in the journal SLEEP found that insomnia can increase the likelihood for developing anxiety disorders.
Yet Another Benefit of E-Cigs
Switching to electronic cigarettes will eliminate most of the 4000+ toxic chemicals contained in cigarette smoke. E-cigs also allow the user to control and gradually lessen nicotine intake with multiple concentration level options. This greatly lowers the chance of experiencing anxiety associated with withdrawal as a new vaper can start with a higher nicotine concentration and eventually progress down to 0mg strength cartridges or liquids.
Furthermore, studies have found e-cig vapor has a lower blood nicotine absorption than both cigarettes and NRT, meaning users won't get as much of a jolt. Less absorption will decrease the probability of anxiety and panic attacks associated with nicotine intake. Alternatively, the nicotine from an electronic cigarette still has the potential to relieve some of the tension in those who smoke to relieve stress.
In the long run, e-cigs are far cheaper than tobacco cigarettes. Smokers who switch can save upwards of thousands of dollars per year. With money being one of the top causes of stress in the US, a smoker can alleviate financial insecurity brought on by the hundreds of dollars spent each month on cigarettes.
Smokers living with anxiety disorders may also be more apprehensive to quit. Many use smoking to calm their nerves, not realizing it is probably contributing to much of their tension. Electronic cigarettes have been proven to help even disinclined smokers replace combusted tobacco with vapor. They might just be a worthy alternative for those who use smoking to cope with fear and worry.
How Exercise Calms Anxiety
So now we have yet another reason to switch from smoking to electronic cigarettes. But there is even more you can do to suppress worry and nervousness. An article published on the New York Times blog earlier this month discussed how exercise can benefit anxiety sufferers.
Credit: Getty Images
I have been an on and off avid jogger in my free time for the past 10 years or so. When I started vaping daily last November, running immediately became part of my life again. Since then, not only have my stamina and endurance increased, but my overall mood feels generally elevated. Situations that would have otherwise made me anxious are now easily brushed off.
It is widely known that circulation and lung function begins to improve somewhere around the three month mark of quitting smoking. This means physical activities like walking, swimming and running will come a whole lot easier. For smokers who suffer from anxiety this yet another form of motivation to quit.
The NYT article profiled a Princeton University study on the effect of exercise on the anxiety levels of mice. For six weeks half of the mice were allowed to run on exercise wheels while the other half were kept sedentary in their cages. The scientists found that the active mice were more willing to explore a wide open cage and were more confident and less anxious then the sedentary group.
Using a substance that marks newborn cells, they found the runners' brains developed both new, volatile neurons as well as those designed to release GABA, a neurotransmitter that regulates excitability. Low levels of GABA have been found to contribute anxiety and are commonly treated using medications. In short, the scientists discovered that exercise can be a natural substitute for the benzodiazepine drugs typically prescribed to anxiety and panic disorder patients.
Done in combination, switching from smoking to vaping electronic cigarettes along with adequate exercise can be powerful tools in the fight against anxiety. If personal testimonies aren't enough evidence, science has proven each to be beneficial it its own right. Hopefully we can get future e-cig studies to also look into the changes in lung and brain function before and after switching to vaping to solidify a theory that could be a monumental discovery for smokers suffering from anxiety.
Expert tip: If you're having trouble quitting smoking or haven't fully switched to electronic cigarettes or vape pens, try running before you ditch the analogs altogether. Your lung resistance during a run could provide the extra motivation needed to finally toss out that last pack of Camels.
Are you a current smoker or vaper living with or have dealt with an anxiety disorder in the past? Share you experience in the comments!
1. Any Anxiety Disorder Among Adults
2. Association Between Cigarette Smoking and Anxiety
3. Cigarette Smoking and Sleep Disturbance
4. Chronic Insomnia as a Risk Factor for Developing Anxiety
5. Quitting Smoking Reduces Anxiety
6. How Exercise Can Calm Anxiety