The Psychology of Smoking
One of the biggest reasons we get addicted to smoking is that it activates the rewards center of our brains – specifically, the part of the brain known as the limbic system. That’s considered the “primitive” part of your brain – like a caveman mind. The limbic system deals with emotion and survival – feelings such as fear, anger and sexual arousal. It is irrational and only concerned with avoiding pain and achieving pleasure.
It’s believed the limbic system helped our ancestors survive because it rewarded them for behavior that kept them alive.
But in our modern world, we’ve become overstimulated with rewards. That includes the buzz we get from smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol as well as little things like eating sugar or junk food, going on social media, gambling, playing video games, checking our smartphones etc. They all activate the pleasure/rewards part of our brains and make us feel good.
Some say we might be getting “addicted” to things like that because – besides making us feel good – these reactions become hardwired in our brains so our minds and bodies are tricked into thinking we need them for survival.
That’s why smokers feel like they have to have a cigarette when they are stressed out. The limbic system knows that nicotine will quell the feelings of fear, anxiety or anger and calm the person down – essentially telling the mind that there is no more “danger.”
Nicotine literally changes the way the brain functions.
The Chemistry of Nicotine’s Effect on Your Brain
When the rewards center of your brain is activated – the neurotransmitter known as dopamine is produced. Dopamine is the main culprit – but that’s really oversimplifying the process.
Nicotine seems to have very similar shape and activity to acetylcholine, which occurs naturally in your body. Acetylcholine is a so-called excitatory neurotransmitter that encourages production of other neurotransmitters. Nicotine mimics its actions.
When you first ingest nicotine, the adrenal glands are stimulated and the neurotransmitter epinephrine (or adrenaline) is released. This causes your heart-rate and blood pressure. It also promotes production of dopamine.
Nicotine attaches to core neurons in your limbic system. Those neurons then flood your brain with dopamine – the root-cause of the pleasurable feeling you get from smoking. On top of that, dopamine tells your primitive brain tor remember the nice feeling so it wants it again and again, which eventually leads to dependence and then addiction.
Researchers have found that nicotine effects other neurotransmitters as well – including glutamate and GABA.
Glutamate speeds up the neurons in your mind and enhances the connections between neurons. It is involved with memory and learning. This might be why some people feel the need to smoke cigarettes when they have to focus. Experts also think glutamate could create a “memory loop” of the pleasurable response in your brain, which further reinforces the addiction.
GABA is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in regulating the release of dopamine in your brain. It’s believed that GABA can reduce excitability in the nervous system. However, nicotine seems to impact GABA’s ability to inhibit dopamine release. This could cause the effects of a nicotine buzz to last longer.
Nicotine also appears to increase the amount of endorphins your brain makes. Endorphins are often called the body’s “natural painkillers” and can produce a euphoric feeling – somewhat similar to morphine. That’s yet another way nicotine has a rewarding (and potentially addicting) effect.
What Happens When You Stop Smoking
There’s obviously a lot that goes on when nicotine enters your body. So it’s no surprise that nicotine withdrawal can cause a host of unpleasant side effects – physical, mental and emotional.
According to the Mayo Clinic, nicotine withdrawal may lead to:
Sleep Issues Including Insomnia
Mood Issues Including Irritability and Anxiety
Memory and Focus Problems
Remember, nicotine literally changes the way your brain works. That means when you’re no longer putting nicotine in your system, you’ll be missing something your mind and body has come to rely on to function in day-to-day life.
It’s going to take time to retrain your brain. It won’t be pretty. But you may be able to get some all-natural help.