We are all very well aware of the harmful physical effects of smoking: Lung cancer, emphysema, COPD, asthma, coughing, allergies and a whole barrage of other various assorted ailments. What we aren’t bombarded with on a daily basis are the psychological effects of smoking. So just what are the mental and emotional consequences of this addiction?
The largest effect of smoking is, well, addiction. Addiction is being enslaved to a habit or practice, to such a degree that stopping it, if you can, causes severe trauma. Those who work at quitting smoking experience a plethora of physical withdrawal symptoms including heightened irritability, coughing and insomnia, but there is a long list of psychological symptoms that go along with trying to quit. Depression, boredom and loneliness are all very real psychological effects those trying to quit cigarettes experience.
Wait a minute though, if the psychological effects of smoking were all bad, people wouldn’t get hooked in the first place, would they?
The kicker here is that all of the psychological effects of smoking aren’t bad; in fact, nicotine is a very powerfully addictive drug, and it’s really the nicotine that people become addicted to. According to the American Heart Association, nicotine actually changes the human brain and causes smokers to physically and psychologically need the substance to function. When a person inhales nicotine smoke, the chemical quickly absorbs into the lungs and passes into the bloodstream, which quickly transfers it throughout the entire body.
As the nicotine travels deeper into the brain through the bloodstream, the nicotine molecules begin locking into receptors throughout the brain. Now, nicotine’s molecule shape is a near perfect mimic of that of acetylcholine, a natural neurotransmitter that responsible for controlling muscle movements, breathing, heart rate, learning and memory; acetylcholine also unleashes other brain chemicals that regulate mood, appetite, memory, and most important of all, ones that stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. The imposter nicotine particularly stimulates one center of the brain to release large doses of dopamine into the body, which give the smoker a deep, calm feeling of satisfaction. The smoker quickly learns to link that euphoric feeling with smoking and the addictive psychological damage is mostly done.
The second part of this psychological reaction that is happening in the brain is also what is going on at the time the smoker is lighting up. This is the environmental aspect of the psychological effects of smoking. For instance, most smokers light up when they are driving, after a meal, when they are talking on the phone or when they are bored. Along with the association that the brain makes between the euphoric feelings the dopamine dump provides is a situational association. This means that the person not only associates their new-found inner-zen with smoking, but also with smoking while driving, or smoking when talking on the phone, or smoking…well, whenever they’re doing what they’re doing when they’re smoking.
Because of this association, smokers will begin to change their behaviors and alter their lives to include smoking more. At this point the addiction qualifies as a mental disorder because it is interfering with the daily routines of the individual’s life; i.e. the smoker will go outside on a freezing winter day to have a smoke without a coat because he forgot it at home, but the need for a cigarette outweighs the logic of staying inside where it is warm.
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Not all of the psychological effects of smoking appear when someone is trying to quit smoking; that’s just the glamorous side that makes good PSAs. Those effects have been there the entire time; from the first cigarette on, they are always with the smoker, controlling the habit for them.