Several studies have made a link between smoking and depression. Depressed people are more likely to smoke, but, perversely, smoking might lead to depression. This article looks to tease out the factors that make up the relationship between smoking and depression.

What is depression?

Depression is more than just feeling sad; it is characterized by a paralysing inability to derive pleasure from anything. Without feeling pleasure, a person loses their motivation to act, making even simple things like getting out of bed or eating challenging. A natural consequence of this is apathy. Depression is one of the best-known of all mental illnesses. Some studies suggest that as much as 5% of the population is depressed at any one time, making it more likely than not that you or someone close to you has suffered from it.

Depressed people are more likely to smoke, smokers are more likely to be depressed

There is plenty of research suggesting that depressed people are more likely to smoke, with some studies indicating that lifetime frequency of depression was over twice as high with smokers as with non-smokers. These studies also suggest that depressed people are half as likely to succeed in an attempt to give up smoking as non-smokers. The reason for this might be that some of the chemicals within cigarettes have antidepressant qualities. For a person not prone to depression, to stop smoking cigarettes means a battle with desires and withdrawal symptoms; for a person who is, they may have to deal with a relapse of their mental illness on top of that.

Can depression cause smoking?

Quitting cigarettes does, no matter which method you use, require willpower. Depression saps you of your willpower, making it an even bigger challenge than it already is. To successfully stop smoking you need to make yourself feel good for doing so; you need to give yourself a pat on the back for every hour you go without lighting up. Depression makes this process a lot more difficult. If you're using a method like the Token Economy Method to give up cigarettes, you need to be able to reinvigorate the act of quitting with every hour that goes by. If a depressed person feels less pleasure from things that are ordinarily reinforcing, it follows that a method based on controlled reinforcement through pleasure will be less effective.

Can smoking cause depression?

Intuitively, there are reasons why this could be true. For one, being addicted to cigarettes can create a sense of oneself as a helpless victim, and this mentality leads quickly to feelings of depression. Another point is that the cognitive dissonance felt by smokers – who have to reconcile their desire to smoke with their desire to live a long and healthy life – creates anxiety which, in turn, leads to depression. Because nicotine might have antidepressant properties, people may smoke it in order to feel normal, leading to a decrease in the brain's natural ability to generate happiness. Therefore, the more dependent they are, the more depressed they may feel when they do try to quit.

What can be done to break the cycle?

It is possible that the link between depression and smoking is bi-directional: depression can lead to smoking, which in turn leads to more depression and more smoking, and so on. This can be a vicious cycle, but the fact that smoking and depression are so closely linked can actually be used to your advantage. It means that you can take measures to combat depression, and this will make it easier to stop smoking. If you make sure that you go for an hour-long walk everyday, you will feel the benefit in many ways. Of course, the exercise is good for you but the positive emotions it will generate will make it easier for you to resist the urge to smoke. Exercise will make you feel better about yourself, which will in turn increase your willpower. Other measures typically used to combat depression, such as ensuring you get quality social contact on a daily basis, should also help. Just ensure that you do not hang out with smokers, at least until your addiction is broken. A related point is that if you find yourself walling in the pit of depression, quitting smoking might be just what you need to pull yourself out of it.