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by Robert MacKay, Sunday, January 6, 2013 | Categories: Smoking

We have had sight of a study that examines the relationship between smoking and anxiety. It has traditionally been accepted that smoking relieves stress (based on anecdotal evidence).  I am not aware of any empirical study out there that would corroborate this hypothesis but as nicotine is a psychoactive drug, it is likely that it affords the perception of stress reduction.  A new study by researchers at the King’s College London however has suggested that giving up smoking actually reduces anxiety, whereas failure to give up smoking causes anxiety levels to increase.

While the headline caught my attention, the study is so full of holes that it is difficult to know where to start. Sure, anxiety levels were measured and discovered to be at a lower level in the group that had successfully quit and anxiety levels increased amongst those that had failed to quit but I could not see anything in the study that explored the possibility that the stress levels recorded might be related to any factors external to the study. The nature of this study meant that it this sort of interrogation was not possible but this avenue of investigation really would be necessary to corroborate the hypothesis. The study was also very small – only 68 participants had abstained from smoking after 6 months.

I think that the researchers are onto something: smoking puts a lot of stress on the body so a reduction in perceived stress after a period of time is probably a correctly observed phenomenon but this does not explain the increased stress levels amongst the group that failed to quit. Clearly more work is needed if a conclusion is to be successfully drawn but no doctor that I know would ever be advising a patient to continue smoking to reduce anxiety levels so I am not sure what utility such a study would provide.

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