Smoking Addiction: Mental vs Physical Addiction

Understanding the differences between psychological and physical addiction can help in finding the cessation aid that works best for you.

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Everyone knows that cigarettes are highly addictive and often hard to quit. This is due, in part, to the physical changes caused by nicotine found in tobacco products. What some may not realize, however, is that mental, or psychological, addiction is also a large part of why tobacco products are so hard to shake.

Physical Nicotine Addiction

Every time someone smokes, nicotine enters the brain almost immediately. Receptors in the brain absorb the substance and then dopamine is released, resulting in a feeling of happiness or calm, according to the American Cancer Society. This is the starting point of physical addiction. As more cigarettes are smoked, more nicotine receptors are made. This leads to more and more nicotine being needed in order to achieve the same feelings of calm, resulting in the smoking of more cigarettes. As the body becomes accustomed to having this constant flow of nicotine, symptoms like anxiety and stress can manifest if a cigarette break is missed. Once this cycle begins, physical addiction has occurred.

The physical addiction to nicotine is what most people think of when they consider the addictive properties of cigarettes. It’s also the addiction most smoking cessation aids target and treat. This is because when cigarettes are discontinued, strong physical symptoms can occur as the brain deals with a lack of nicotine. Nicotine replacement products, for instance, supply a stream of nicotine to offset these symptoms, without the need to smoke. This nicotine is slowly lowered until the addiction is no longer present. Medications may work by “turning off” the nicotine receptors in the brain, reducing cravings.

Psychological Addiction

This type of addiction is less talked about, and until recently, less often treated in those who try to quit smoking. According to the Respiratory Health Association in Chicago, psychological, mental, or emotional addiction involves the rituals, feelings, or people associated with smoking. For instance, someone who smokes while enjoying their morning cup of coffee or breakfast may find that he/she lights up each morning without even thinking about it. It becomes an engrained part of one’s day so that it is no longer a conscious choice.

To some, smoking may also elicit feelings of love, relaxation, or peace if they are used to lighting up during certain situations or while interacting with certain people. For instance, the common stereotype of smoking after sex rings true for many people. The feelings of closeness one has with his or her partner, combined with the natural endorphin and oxytocin rush may be intertwined with smoking. Most people feel relaxed, loved, satisfied, and happy after sexual interactions: feelings which can easily be inappropriately linked to the act of smoking when it is performed directly after such acts.

These emotional ties can be harder to break for some, as there are no medications available to help with these attachments.

Treatments for Physical and Psychological Addictions

Physical addictions may be treated using prescription medications, nicotine replacement therapies, and relaxation techniques to help ward off cravings. Mental addiction can be harder to shake, as some smokers may not even realize why they are craving a cigarette at specific times, or they may light up before even realizing they are doing so. Counseling can help these people talk through feelings of loss or to work through stressful situations in which they’d normally turn to cigarettes. Being mindful of when cigarettes are most desired and keeping distractions nearby can also help.

One promising smoking cessation aid which can help with both physical and psychological addiction is the electronic cigarette. These devices provide tailored doses of nicotine, which can help prevent withdrawal symptoms, but they also offer the sensations normally obtained through smoking. Smokers can feel free to “smoke” during their coffee, after sex, when they feel stressed, or at any other time, without the health consequences. Once the nicotine addiction has been diminished, the mental addiction can be dealt with, allowing smokers to quit at their own pace.