Cigarette burning out

Anxiety and Smoking: How it affects our Mental Health

6 minutes to read
Molly Farrell

Molly Farrell

BSci majoring in Psychology, PGDp in Health Science

Note — The article was checked and updated December 2022.

Nicotine only briefly reduces stress. Then, our levels of anxiety and risk of depression increase because of nicotine withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

Smoking causes mood and anxiety disorders and increases tension.

To find a regular smoker in New Zealand who is unaware of the physiological consequences of cigarettes would be extremely rare to come by. The risks involved with cigarette smoking on our physical health have become very salient in our lives. 

But what light has been shed, so far, on the damage smoking can have on our mental wellness, levels of anxiety and risk of depression?

RELATED — Introduction to: Depression

Smoking rate among adults in NZ

In the chart above we can see the Smoking rate among adults in New Zealand.[1]

Why do we smoke?

Smoking is used as a short term pain relief. When inhaled, cigarette smoke provides us with instant pleasure. The nicotine ingredient invokes a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine and we instantly feel relaxed.[2] 

This instant relief can be disguised as an anxiety reducer but if anything, when we dive into the science, cigarette smoking will only make things worse.[3] In our previous article An anxious generation, we have covered the increased levels and rise in anxiety over the last few decades.

It is no longer hidden that those with anxiety and depression are more likely to lean on pleasurable stimulants such as alcohol, drugs and, the focus of this article being, cigarette smoking. But in addition to this statement, we can also explore whether smoking can increase the risk of anxiety and depression. 

Not only does smoking increase the difficulties associated with addiction such as withdrawal symptoms, but studies have found that this habit can create significant changes to our brains linked to common mental health issues.[3]

Smoking and impact on our brain neural circuits

Neurotransmitters are a vital part of our wellbeing. They are the messengers that control our mood and regulation. As mentioned, there is a strong link between nicotine and dopamine, but another messenger of great importance is serotonin, often called our happy hormone. 

Studies have found that nicotine can have a significant influence on our neurotransmitter pathways and can precipitate deficits in the metabolization of key players such as serotonin, associated with greater risk of mental instability.[3]

Effects of Smoking on our brain structure

The impact of nicotine can also be explored beyond our messenger signals and observed through structural changes of the brain. Inflammation of the brain can cause severe issues regarding our mental wellbeing and there is no shortage of evidence linking brain inflammation with anxiety and depression.[4]

Unfortunately, nicotine poses great risk and we need to be more aware of how smoking can act as an inflammatory agent. Here, we have a double edged sword as mental health issues and cigarette smoking are said to work synergistically, increasing inflammation of the brain.[5] 

In New Zealand, tobacco industries are made to market the physical risks of consumption, but there is more to it than is currently meeting the eye. Anxious individuals are more likely to smoke and smoking is likely to make you more anxious.[3]

This tortuous feedback loop is attracting a massive part of our population. How do we combat this?

Where to next - quit smoking?

Addiction is a hard one to cut, and not one method can be applied to every individual. But there are significant gaps in our knowledge. We need more insight into the mental impact of cigarette smoking. Temporary solutions are leading to long term deficits and more needs to be said about the perceived happiness we gain from a puff.

RELATED — 12 Health Benefits of Hypnosis: Live better and be healthier

Quit Smoking? Sometimes that’s easier said than done, which is why I would suggest you join us and Subscribe to our Newsletter. That way, you will always be informed when a new article, regarding the topics that you are interested in, will be published.

Mental Health and Wellness Advocate

With extensive experience as a mental health support worker, Molly knows first hand the impact our mind can have on our physical, emotional and social wellbeing. She has completed a Bachelor’s of Science, majoring in Psychology, and a postgraduate diploma in Health Science, which gives her an opportunity to combine theoretical knowledge with practice.

Molly’s goal and focus is to provide others with education and awareness on how we can improve our mental wellness and of those around us.


(1) Hinton, T. (2020). Share of current smokers in New Zealand in financial year 2019, by age. Retrieved from Statista: 

(2) Benowitz, N.L. (2009). Pharmacology of Nicotine: Addiction, Smoking-Induced disease, and Therapeutics. Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology, 49, 57- 71. 

(3) Moylan. S., Jacka, F.N., Pasco, J.A & Berk, M. (2013). How cigarette smoking may increase the risk of anxiety symptoms and anxiety disorders: a critical review of biological pathways. Brain and Behaviour, 3(3), 302-326. 

(4) Wadee, A., Kuschke, R., Kometz. S &Berk M. (2001). Personality factors, stress and immunity. Stress Health.17, 25–40.

(5) Nunes, S.O., Vargas, H.O., Brum, J., Prado, E., Vargas, M.M., de Castro, M.R, Dodd, S and Berk, M. (2012). A comparison of inflammatory markers in depressed and nondepressed smokers. Nicotine and Tobacco Research, 14, 540–546

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