February 08, 2021
Don’t let COVID-19 stress stop you from quitting smoking
BY Danielle Underferth
Studies show that 70% of people who smoke want to quit. If you’re in that group, now is the perfect time to quit smoking.
Trying to quit while juggling the stress and disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic may seem like a recipe for failure. But COVID-19 is a serious respiratory disease. Smokers have a harder time fighting off COVID-19, and they are more like to develop severe symptoms if they get it.
We talked to Maher Karam-Hage, M.D., medical director of MD Anderson’s Tobacco Treatment Program, about the relationship between stress, nicotine addiction, and quitting smoking during the pandemic.
In your experience, how are smokers reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic?
We’ve seen an increase in patients and employees asking to participate in our Tobacco Treatment Program since the pandemic started.
Some tell us they see the pandemic as a sign that they should try to quit. They know that smoking is bad for their lungs and their immune system, and here is a virus that affects the lungs and is related to the immune system. They are making that connection.
How are smoking and stress-related?
When people smoke, in that moment they feel better and they get relaxed because the inhaling and puffing of smoking are relaxing. It’s sort of a ritual.
In addition, the nicotine in the cigarette has anti-anxiety properties for some people. So they feel better in the moment. They feel like they’re relaxed and more focused and in control, which eases anxiety.
But over the long term, the chemicals and tar in the smoke make smokers more sensitive to stress and anxiety. It becomes a loop, which contributes to addiction. They cannot get out of it.
Should people who smoke wait to quit until their stress level is lower?
It depends on the person, and it depends on how severe their situation is. If you feel you can do it, then try as soon as you can. If you choose to delay, don’t put it off forever. Most of the time, the discomfort or withdrawal lasts a day or two. In some cases, it may last a week or two. Over the long term, quitting is going to help with stress and anxiety.
Quitting also reduces depression and the frequency of panic attacks.
Most people struggle at the beginning after they quit smoking. They feel more anxious, more stressed. But then things get better very quickly.
For some people, this struggle may last a few days; rarely it may take a few weeks or months. But if the smoker can get through the short-term discomfort of quitting, the benefits on their emotional health will be tremendous.
What’s the best way to quit smoking?
The best way to quit smoking is with a combination of counseling and medication. Smokers who take advantage of both tools are twice as likely to quit successfully as those who only use one or neither.
Counseling is important because a counselor can give you the tools you need to handle setbacks and cravings, modify your behavior and cope with triggers. This is crucial when your quit journey gets challenging.
A counselor can also help you understand how to take medications and discuss side effects management. There are two types of medications to help reduce and ultimately eliminate your nicotine addiction. Nicotine replacement therapy helps you dial down your addiction by providing you with precise doses of nicotine. That the nicotine dose is reduced over time. Other medications block the effects of nicotine, so smoking becomes less pleasurable.
One drug, Chantix, does both. It’s the most effective smoking cessation medication.
What resources does MD Anderson offer to help smokers quit?
MD Anderson’s Tobacco Treatment Program is a comprehensive smoking cessation program that offers virtual behavioral counseling, telephone support and medication. The program is free and open to MD Anderson patients and employees who smoke or have quit smoking within the past 12 months.
We also have several research studies that offer smoking cessation support for Texas residents. Fill out our screening questionnaire to find a study that’s right for you, no matter what stage you’re at in your quitting journey.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
Over the long term, quitting is going to help with stress and anxiety.
Maher Karam-Hage, M.D.