Why vaping can mean more — not less — stress

Within minutes of your first puff on a nicotine vape, you may have felt less stressed, more focused, and oddly like you had just aced a test. You felt good. Sadly, nicotine can make a great first impression — but then the mind games take over fast. 

Skip vaping for a few hours and you might be spiraling. A quick vape hit levels you out, but skip another few hours, and you’re back to feeling like crap.

If you started out vaping to cope with stresses coming from the outside, now you’ve got one coming from the inside — your body screaming for nicotine — and it doesn’t go away. That’s how it can really start impacting your mental health. Here’s why vaping nicotine can mean more — not less — stress.

Dopamine, pleasure, and addiction

When you smoke or vape, nicotine quickly fills your lungs and can hit your brain within seconds. In your brain, it stimulates the release of dopamine, a naturally occurring chemical messenger, or neurotransmitter, which is part of your body’s rewards system.

Dopamine is your body’s way of giving you a thumbs up, and the chemical is linked to learning, attention, and mood, among other functions. Dopamine is the brain’s treat to make you want to do things. It can feel pleasurable. You also get a little dopamine kick from things like buying new sneakers or smelling a homecooked meal. But, on the dark side, dopamine makes addiction complicated as heck.

The more you vape, the more you condition your body to crave the fleeting release of dopamine from nicotine. Once you are fully hooked on nicotine, you’re basically vaping to avoid withdrawal. 

The younger you are, the more prone you are to learning this addictive behavior, because the human brain is still developing until around the age of 25. You build synapses faster, which means getting addicted more easily, and that’s why you’ve been a prime target for vaping companies — pretty much since you were at summer camp.

Drawing attention to youth vaping and mental health

Last year, truth launched a campaign to bring attention to the connection between youth vaping and mental health. Their most recent effort — Breath of Stress Air — builds on that campaign, by busting the myth that vaping is a stress reliever.

This latest campaign turns the idea of vaping nicotine for stress relief on its head. It’s no accident that this myth exists. The tobacco industry has used the illusion of nicotine being a stress reliever as a tool for decades, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

When things started to go topsy-turvy, several vape companies leveraged the idea of providing an escape from what was going on to promote their products. But in reality, vaping nicotine can add to your stress and can also amplify feelings of depression and anxiety. In fact, according to Truth Initiative survey data, 93% of vapers reported that vaping negatively affected their lives because it made them feel more stressed, depressed, or anxious.

Many tobacco users also falsely believe tobacco products can relieve stress or anxiety. In fact, what may be going on is they’re interpreting the ability of these products to curb the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal as a beneficial effect on mental health, according to research on the effects of quitting smoking on mental health. 

In other words, vaping is relieving the stress of not vaping; it’s an amplifier — not an alleviator — of stress. 

Selling the myth of stress relief

It’s no mistake that the illusion of nicotine as a stress-relieving tool exists. It is an extensive, decades-long marketing campaign, in which the tobacco industry has invested significant resources to try and convince consumers there is a connection between tobacco use and mental well-being, stress relief, relaxation, and pleasure

Some e-cigarette brands are now tapping into themes of stress relief and mental well-being as well, including one popular disposable e-cigarette brand which during the pandemic marketed its product as a way to “stay sane,” advertising it as “the perfect escape from back-to-back Zoom calls, parental texts, and WFH stress.”

In addition to supporting research that positions cigarettes as a way to self-medicate, and using stress relief themes in marketing, the tobacco industry has even gone as far as giving away cigarettes to psychiatric facilities.

The ways to take back your freedom

Research shows that quitting nicotine has been linked to lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as improved positive mood and quality of life. Truth Initiative survey data show that 90% of those who quit said they felt less stressed, anxious, or depressed.

Launched by truth, This is Quitting is a first-of-its-kind, free, and anonymous text message program created specifically to help youth and young adults to stop vaping nicotine (to sign up, all you need to do is text DITCHVAPE to 88709). A recent clinical trial found This is Quitting from truth increased quit rates among young adults aged 18-24 by nearly 40% compared to a control group. More than 425,000 young people have used the program as part of their journey to quit. 

Trading ‘Stress Air’ for fresh air

Nicotine cravings cause stress and anxiety. Breathing exercises can help. Breathing is a proven method to reduce anxiety and can help curb cravings. Breathwrk and This is Quitting from truth have partnered to create quitting-specific breathing exercises to help young people cut nicotine cravings and reach their quitting goals. 

This partnership between truth and Breathwrk offers three custom breathing exercises designed to help young people relieve anxiety, strengthen lungs, and ease cravings while trying to quit vaping.

Each exercise serves a different purpose: the No Worries provides stress relief; the Strong Lungs helps strengthen your breathing muscles and builds lung capacity; and the Craving Curber helps shift your focus away from the nagging need to vape. Additionally, all users of This is Quitting can get free access to the full Breathwrk app for 6 months. 

Every breath counts

By taking online breaths and hosting offline “breathe in” events, young people nationwide are joining truth to demand action from decision-makers to declare vaping as a mental health issue. Join them for a Moment of Action: thetruth.com/mentalhealth2022.

There is no better time to trade “stress air” for fresh air.

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