Covid-19 Stress and the Risk of Smoking

Posted by John Barsan-Chis on

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the Covid-19 crisis is causing an upspike in stress for people as they deal with quarantining and the risk of exposure to friends and family.

So, how has the current situation affected public health and what resources are available to help in a difficult time?
What is the current situation?

Since the start of the UK, the world has been gripped with the threat of Covid-19 management – with the population finding the last six months especially trying.

Starting on the 31st of January, the first two confirmed cases of Coronavirus were present in the UK – with the total reaching 16 in the UK and from Northern Ireland. The 5th of March saw Flybe go into administration and the first confirmation of a death in the UK, with the 13th of March seeing the first fatality in Scotland, and the 19th seeing fatalities in Northern Ireland. The 23rd saw the Prime Minister implement a lockdown to prevent individuals leaving home except when “absolutely necessary”.

Since then, many individuals have found themselves trapped in limbo with disruptions to their work, being furloughed, and having their personal freedoms curtailed – alongside placing additional pressure on them to care for friends, neighbours, and vulnerable family members.

As of the time of writing, non-essential retail began to open on the 15th of June, with other venues set to open on the 4th of July in an effort to bolster the economy. Despite these positive movements, the risk posed by Covid-19 is still potentially high – leading many to struggling under the weight of responsibility in dealing with the virus while still maintaining their day to day lives in the face of tremendous uncertainty.

Thankfully, the gradual rolling back of coronavirus protections facing the public has diminished. Despite this, 22 million people in the UK are now smoking more than usual and highlighting the current health crisis as a trigger.

This has seen individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds and those suffering from mental health issues struggle the most. Most recently, respondents to a Guardian Callout mentioning the role quarantine stress plays, asserting that anxiety and lockdown boredom meant they were constantly relighting. Thankfully, individuals that managed to quit were given a renewed sense of control and relieving them of the guilt from continuing to remain tethered to their habit.

Without this sense of ‘control’ in a disrupted world, stress and burnout can quickly creep into our daily lives. And whether it’s due to uncertainty or material issues, responsibly managing your mental health becomes a key priority for everyone.
How can stress affect the body?

Often unseen, stress creates a self-perpetuating loop that touch every corner of your daily life. A response brough about by a number of triggers, feeling ‘stressed’ prompts the body to create adrenaline and cortisol – priming you for fight or flight behaviour. While useful in a life or death struggle, this can produce a number of undesirable effects such as mood swings, tiredness, and irritability. This can even result in becoming physically sick with fatigue or other issues as your body burns up energy being ‘ready’ for a threat that never comes and cannot ever be physically addressed.

Constant stress can even result in long-term physiological and psychological damage – increasing your risk factor, harming your interpersonal relationships, and reinforcing coping mechanisms based on avoidance over actively managing the issue.

Unfortunately, stress is a colossal trigger for smoking for many, with nicotine providing an initially relaxing effect as the body receives its ‘hit’. This makes smoking a quick and simple stress reducer for many, despite nicotine acting as a powerful stimulant in the long term that can rachet up tension and anxiety in the long term. Increased tolerance can quickly lead to increased consumption to achieve the same level of effect, ramping up your dependency while also making a mental connection between picking up a pack of smokes and dealing with your stress levels.

Aside from the risks posed by smoking, stress is repeatedly highlighted as a root cause for many mental health problems. This cements a link between physical and psychological health - showing a need to not only actively tackle stress and mental health, but to cut anything out of our lives that proves to be a net negative to both.
How much of a risk is smoking?

Putting aside the well-publicised issues that surround tobacco products, going back to the habit in the middle of Covid 19 is a potentially dangerous with the British Government’s recent research around the topic highlighted the net negative effect that smoking has on mental health. This saw cigarettes enjoy a high attachment rate for those with mental health issues, with 40.5% of individuals with a serious mental illness smoking. One out of every threecigarettes consumed is at the hand of a citizen with a recognised mental health problem – with smokers dying up to 17 years prematurely from lung, heart, vascular issues, and stroke. Add in the context of Covid-19 and now the most important - and in many ways the most difficult - time to give up smoking.

This is further compounded by the fact that two of the leading causes for death with Covid-19 is from pneumonia and complicating factors stemming from pre-existing health conditions. This led to an explicit statement from the World Health Organisation (WHO) highlighting that smokers were more at risk from Covid-19 that non-consumers within the general public.

While research is still ongoing, it is vital to take every step possible to protect your mental and physical health while caring for those around you. Thankfully, cutting back or quitting cigarettes involves all three – potentially making cessation a key part of your mental health management strategy during lockdown.
How do you fight it?

An essential part in managing your everyday health, every individual can take action to tackle issues that cause anxiety and stress. While it is essential to seek out professional care when it comes to issues around mental and physical health, there are a number of options available that can make all the difference. These include-

Reducing Stress: Living, working, and caring for people in quarantine can have a negative effect on your stress levels and mental health. When bickering gets too much, finding a trained counsellor can help reopen and repair lines of communication and make all the difference when it all feels too much. Working on your distress tolerance can also help, especially when it comes to dealing with the cravings of missing a cigarette or building your willpower to resist picking up a packet on your next trip to the shops.

Pursuing ‘active’ steps: Exercise is a natural stress reliever. Undertaking physical exertion releases endorphins that can help bring your heart rate down, moderate pain and cravings, balance mood, and more. Apps such as Couch to 5k can help provide regulated daily exercise and even something simple like going for a regular walk can provide a top up that is good for your heart and head. Following official guidance can also help you get out of the house while distancing safely, letting you put in place good habits that can last long after quarantine is ended.

Seeking professional guidance: Cutting back in modern times allows you to access a wealth of online and in-person support. This can include services such as the NHS, through your GP, or using any number of validated apps that are available across a range of smartphones and devices. Working with trained professionals helps provide objective guidance that can help you quit and remain smoke-free for as long as you need.

Switching to an alternative: Research from the NHS has continuously highlighted vaping as a viable alternative to smoking when used responsibly. Being able to manage your intake and use helps avoid the known issues that surround tobacco and can prove to be significantly cheaper than buying cigarettes. And, if taste is an issue, changing your e-liquid flavour profile or concentration is quick and easy.
What next?

If you want to learn more about smoking cessation or health care and tobacco control, you can take some time to review standing NHS guidance or further material from WHO detailing to manage your quitting in an organised way.

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