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3 important things to know about quitting nicotine during times of stress

Nicotine addiction – whether through smoking or vaping – can increase stress levels, and quitting nicotine can improve mental health.

According to a 2014 review of 26 studies, quitting smoking is linked with lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as improved positive mood and quality of life compared with those who continue to smoke. And Truth Initiative surveys of young people who quit vaping nicotine-containing e-cigarettes found that 90% of those who quit vaping said they felt less stressed, anxious, or depressed.

But quitting nicotine can be difficult and obstacles from other areas of life such as work, school, and relationships can add to the stress – which is a common trigger to use nicotine. In a 2021 Truth Initiative survey, 4 in 5 young people who had vaped nicotine said they started to lessen their stress, anxiety, or depression.

Stress can present challenges for people who want to quit nicotine, but these challenges are manageable, especially if you know the facts about nicotine and stress. Here are three important things to keep in mind about quitting nicotine during times of stress.

Nicotine withdrawal causes stress and anxiety

The common misconception that nicotine relieves stress, anxiety, and depression may be rooted in the cycle of nicotine withdrawal. Irritability, anxiety, and depression are some of the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, and using nicotine relieves these symptoms temporarily. It’s critical to recognize that the cycle of nicotine withdrawal, subsequent nicotine use, and alleviation of symptoms starts with nicotine addiction in the first place.

Despite years of research showing that the opposite is true, the tobacco industry has invested significant resources in marketing that connects tobacco use with mental well-being. From an early Camel cigarette ad that depicts a relaxed smoker with the text, “It’s a psychological fact, pleasure helps your disposition. For more pure pleasure – have a Camel,” to a pandemic isolation-themed Puff Bar ad calling the e-cigarette brand a way to “stay sane” and “the perfect escape from back-to-back zoom calls, parental texts, and WFH stress,” the tobacco industry often depicts its products as tools for stress relief.

Given these two factors – the cycle of nicotine withdrawal combined with tobacco industry marketing – it’s no wonder that people have misconceptions about the role nicotine plays in mental well-being.

Quitting “cold turkey” is unlikely to work

Whether it’s cigarettes, e-cigarettes, or any other tobacco product, trying to quit “cold turkey” – meaning to stop abruptly without any support or replacement medications – is unlikely to be successful. Research over the past 25 years has shown that out of 100 people trying to quit smoking cold turkey, only about three to five of them will succeed for longer than six months. In other words, while some people can quit this way, at least 95% of people can’t.

Quitting cold turkey has such a low success rate due to the nature of nicotine addiction. Addiction undermines willpower, or the ability to control impulses through decision-making.

“When you understand the addictive nature of tobacco, it’s easier to understand why many can’t just quit,” wrote Michael Burke, program director at Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center in a blog post for the EX Program.

It’s important people have the support of evidence-based resources when quitting any nicotine-containing product.

Evidence-based quit resources can help

This is Quitting from truth – the evidence-based, first-of-its-kind, free quit vaping program that is the largest in the country and the only one that has been validated by peer-reviewed research – has helped more than 550,000 young people on their journeys to quit vaping.

A randomized clinical trial found that young adults aged 18-24 who used This is Quitting had nearly 40% higher odds of quitting compared to a control group. Results from another randomized clinical trial underscored that This is Quitting is not only successful in helping young people quit vaping, but also in ensuring that they don’t later use combustible tobacco products in place of e-cigarettes.

As part of its new youth prevention and education effort Breath of Stress Air 2.0, truth has also partnered with the app Breathwrk to incorporate breathing exercises into This is Quitting to help with nicotine cravings that cause stress and anxiety. This is Quitting users can access six months of free membership to Breathwrk Pro, including access to custom breaths to help on their quit journey, by texting “BREATHE” to 88709.

EX is a free, digital quit-smoking plan and online community of smokers and ex-smokers developed by Truth initiative in collaboration with Mayo Clinic. Through EX, more than 940,000 people have developed skills and confidence to successfully quit smoking, and research has shown that following the EX quit plan quadruples a tobacco user’s chance of quitting.

EX Program expands on EX to provide an enterprise-level tobacco cessation program for employers and health plans. Clients have access to real-time information about their members’ participation through web-based dashboards, enabling them to administer a tobacco cessation benefit more efficiently and engage their members more effectively. EX Program is helping more than 10.2 million adults around the nation, including through Medicaid plans in Nevada, Iowa, Kentucky, and West Virginia.