The falsehood that nicotine use relieves stress is almost as destructive as the tease of "just one" or "just once."
For example, a June 2013 study found that roughly one million U.S. ex-smokers relapsed to smoking following the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
What I find amazing is that at some point prior to 9/11, nearly all of those ex-smokers were able to break free despite continuing to deeply believe that smoking relieves stress.
In fact, it's natural and normal to believe that nicotine is a stress-buster, that it calms us during crisis. How could we not? We'd felt it happen hundreds or maybe even thousands of times previously. Or, did we?
Stress relief is the most deeply engrained use belief of all. And this deadly belief certainly isn't news to the nicotine addiction industry.
According to a once secret 1983 Brown & Williamson research memo, "People smoke to maintain nicotine levels" and "stress robs the body of nicotine, implying a smoker smokes more in times of stress due to withdrawal, not to relax."
Said differently, stress causes withdrawal's onset. Sadly, what those million ex-smokers did on 9/11 was to fall prey to durable wanting satisfaction memories created by an actively feeding nicotine addict in need.
The physiological effects of stress cause urine to turn more acidic. Urine acidification accelerates elimination of nicotine from the bloodstream, forcing early replenishment. Additionally, nicotine itself is an alkaloid and extremely sensitive to acids.
GlaxoSmithKline's Nicorette website warns nicotine gum chewers that, "Eating or drinking even mildly acidic foods and beverages directly before using or during use of Nicorette inhibits nicotine absorption into your bloodstream."
Whether inhaled or juiced, nicotine does not relieve anxiety but only its own absence. Countless times previously, an intense needed for replenishment was satisfied by arrival of a new supply. It left us totally yet falsely convinced that nicotine was an emotional solution to crisis.
A never-smoker and a smoker both experience flat tires while driving in freezing rain. They stop, get out and look at the flat. The never-smoker sighs and then immediately reaches for a jack to change the tire. And the smoker reaches for ....? That's right, a cigarette. But why?
Stress, anger, worry and fear cause release of hormones which quickly turn urine more acidic. The problem is that the speed or rate by which the kidneys remove and eliminate the alkaloid nicotine from the bloodstream is directly tied to urine acidity (Schachter 1977). Thus, the more stressful the event, the more stress hormones released, the more acidic our urine, and the quicker we sensed withdrawal's onset.
In one study, an increase in urine acidity from a pH of 5.6 to a pH of 4.5 (making it 11 times more acidic) caused a 206% increase in the rate by which the kidneys eliminated nicotine from the bloodstream.
The further from our last nicotine replenishment when stress occured, the more noticeable the decline in tonic dopamine, and the sooner and more intense stress induced wanting was felt.
As stressed nicotine addicts we were forced to reach for a central nervous system stimulant in order to battle the sudden onset of early nicotine withdrawal, before turning our attention to the underlying stressful event (the flat tire).
Whether urine acidification occurs more quickly as a result of stress hormones released during emotional turmoil, or more gradually by slowly drinking alcohol or drinking or consuming acidic juices or foods, the more acidic our urine and the faster the rate of nicotine depletion.
Urine acidification during crisis occurs in stressed never-smokers and ex-smokers too. The difference is that there is no nicotine in their bloodstreams, no accelerated nicotine elimination, and no battle against the onset of withdrawal.
Life as a nicotine addict is hard. It's more stressful, not less. We compounded stressful situations by adding withdrawal to them.
Never once in our life did nicotine resolve the underlying crisis. If the tire was flat, it was still flat. If a bill was unpaid or a loved one had died, replenishment changed nothing. If some other event made us frightened or angry, escape into servicing our addiction totally ignored the event.
And if the flat tire or other stressful situation is tackled and resolved without using, the nicotine addict is still not going to feel good or satisfied. Why? Because addressing the initial cause of stress does not ease withdrawal. Only re-administration of nicotine, or navigating withdrawal and the up to 72 hours needed to eliminate all nicotine and move beyond peak withdrawal, can bring a sense of relief.
Unlike total nicotine elimination, replenishment's relief is temporary. While it calms for the moment, the user will again soon be forced to confront the chemical clock governing their life (nicotine's two-hour chemical half-life), or witness accelerated depletion brought on by encountering stress, consuming alcohol or by drinking or eating acidic foods.
Here, Joel makes an important point. Nicotine's false calming effect quickly becomes a rationalization crutch reached for during stressful situations. A false crutch, nicotine's impact upon the user's life can be "more far-reaching than just making initial stress effects more severe."
According to Joel, "it affects how the person may deal with conflict and sadness in a way that may not be obvious, but is nonetheless serious. In a way, it affects the ability to communicate and maybe even in some ways, to grow from the experience."
Joel shares an example. "Let's say you don't like the way a significant other in your life squeezes toothpaste. If you point out how it's a problem to you in a calm rational manner, maybe the person will change and do it in a way that is not disturbing to you. By communicating your feelings you make a minor annoyance basically disappear."
"But now let's say you're a smoker who sees the tube of toothpaste, gets a little upset, and is about to say something, again, to address the problem. But wait. Because you are a little annoyed, you lose nicotine, go into withdrawal, and before you are able to deal with the problem, you have to go smoke."
"You smoke, alleviate the withdrawal and, in fact, you feel better. At the same time, you put a little time between you and the toothpaste situation and on further evaluation, you decide it's not that big of a deal, and you forget it."
"Sounds like and feels like you resolved the stress. But in fact, you didn't. You suppressed the feeling. It is still there, not resolved, not communicated. Next time it happens again, you again get mad. You go into withdrawal. You have to smoke. You repeat the cycle, again not communicating and not resolving the conflict," explains Joel. "Over and over again, maybe for years this pattern is repeated."
"One day you stop smoking. You may in fact be off for weeks, maybe months. All of a sudden, one day the exact problem presents itself again, that annoying toothpaste. You don't have that automatic withdrawal kicking in and pulling you away from the situation. You see it, nothing else affecting you and you blow up. If the person is within earshot, you may explode."
"When you look back, in retrospect, you feel you have blown up inappropriately, that your reaction was greatly exaggerated for the situation. You faced it hundreds of times before and nothing like this ever happened. You begin to question what happened to you, to turn you into such a horrible or explosive person."
"Understand what happened," writes Joel. "You are not blowing up at what just happened, you are blowing up for what has been bothering you for years. And now, because of the build up of frustration, you are blowing up much more severely than you ever would have if you had addressed it early on. It is like pulling a cork out of a shaken carbonated bottle: the more shaken, the worse the explosion."
Sooner or later, even if we fail to break free from nicotine, that unresolved stress will most probably result in either a blowup or onset of one or more anxiety related diseases.
Don't for a second think that hiding from life by escaping into a stimulated wanting relief sensation is an answer or solution. It's our problem.
As we climb back into our mind's driver's seat we need to listen to our feelings and emotions. We may discover that we need to learn to address the root causes of once suppressed anxiety or anger in positive and healthy ways.
The only lasting solution to anxieties brought on by rapidly falling nicotine reserves - anxieties that interfere with healthy conflict resolution - is to bring active dependency to an end.
And as you do, it's wise to quickly dump the destructive falsehood that a stimulant relieves stress.