Quitting smoking is one of the most common New Year's resolutions—and also one of the most difficult to keep. It's not that people's desire to quit isn't strong. It's just that the pull of nicotine addiction and habit can be even stronger. Some smokers also rely on cigarettes as a psychological crutch, saying that smoking calms them and improves their mood when they're feeling anxious or depressed. This makes quitting even more daunting.
However, surprisingly little is known about how smoking actually affects people psychologically, although the health risks are well documented. So after people have quit (and weathered nicotine withdrawal), is their mood really worse?
The researchers analyzed data on 236 people attempting to stop smoking over 26 weeks. All participants were given treatments at the start of the study to help them quit, including nicotine patches and counseling. They then had a standardized test to check for symptoms of depression a week before their quit date and then two, eight, 16, and 26 weeks later. To confirm whether they were smoke-free during these follow-up visits, participants either had tests of their saliva and breath, or their significant other was asked to verify their smoking status.
Out of the 236 participants, 99 continued smoking throughout the study, and this group consistently had the highest scores on the depression test. In comparison, the 33 participants who stayed smoke-free during the study appeared to be the happiest, with the lowest depression scores.
But the most revealing findings, say the researchers, relate to people who stopped smoking but then relapsed. Overall, their mood improved while they were smoke-free, but then took a downturn when they started smoking again.
The study didn't explore why stopping smoking might improve people's moods. For example, was it simply the boost in self-esteem they got from successfully quitting, or possibly the result of some physiological change in their bodies? More research will need to explore this.
What you need to know. This study provides extra incentive to kick the habit in 2011, showing that people who stop smoking appear to be happier, not just healthier. You might find this particularly compelling if you've been worried that quitting smoking might worsen your mood rather than improve it.
—Sophie Ramsey, patient editor, BMJ Group
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