What’s Hiding Behind a Smoking Habit?

January 3, 2018

Tobacco has a strong, irritating smell. When we breathe it in there’s a burning, suffocating feeling. Still, a lot of people get hooked on the habit and  it ends up being almost impossible to quit.

Nicotine is the substance that makes cigarettes addictive. It’s an alkaloid compound that generates dependency.

After being inhaled, it takes 10 seconds to reach the brain. Once it’s there it stimulates the production of dopamine, but as time goes on the amount doesn’t satisfy us. So, we need bigger doses for the nicotine to have its original effects again.

“The cigarette defines the smoker, like the poem with the poet.”

-Richard Klein-

Unlike other drugs, nicotine doesn’t produce extreme behavioral changes. Still, many studies have been able to establish that there are strong psychological factors that influence a smoking addiction. They consider the habit a “behavioral reinforcement,” more than a strictly physical dependency.

Why Someone Starts Smoking

It’s very common for people to start smoking when they’re teenagers. And it isn’t just a coincidence. Both tobacco and alcohol are legal psychoactives.

They’re easy to get and relatively cheap. It’s a habit that parents and teachers usually forbid. And that’s exactly what attracts a lot of young people.

a girl covering her face while smoking

In a study done by Scientific Psychic, they found that these are the main reasons people start to smoke. They do it to:

  • Defy the adult world or restrictive environments.
  • Adapt to a social circle.
  • Show they’re not a kid anymore.
  • Reaffirm their independence. 
  • Imitate people they admire who smoke.
  • Lose weight.

In the end, there’s a strong psychosocial component to the act of smoking. Usually teenagers will smoke in front of other people, but not keep up the habit when they’re alone.

A lot of them will end up dropping the habit. But there’s another, big group that stays hooked in nicotine’s web.

Breathe In, Breathe Out, Pass Away

There are also some unconscious aspects invested in the act of smoking. In psychoanalysis people talk about a cigarette addiction as an expression of an oral fixation. It represents a regression to the infant phase of our life.

a smoker with pink lipstick

Scholars of the subject like José Antonio Coderch suggest that it’s a habit of people with overprotective mothers that calmed them down with oral gratification. In other words, they calmed their child’s anxiety by giving them something to eat.

A lot of people say they feel the desire to smoke when they’re anxious. According to them, the cigarette calms them down.

While others say that by breathing in smoke, they’re literally swallowing their dreams. In that sense, smoking would be a response to frustration. It symbolically contributes to inhibiting desire.

Along the same line, people have confirmed that when people smoke, what they’re looking for symbolically is a breath of fresh air. 

Lack of ideas, or resources, for solving a problem, unconsciously leads them to smoke. It’s an act that represents the hope of a fresh idea, without bringing one.

What Burns and Then Turns Into Ash

For many ancestral cultures, tobacco is a sacred plant. They know intuitively that it’s an element with positive effects on the brain. There is proof that it stimulates memory, makes you think faster, and stabilizes your mood.

a man in a hat smoking with a colorful painted face

The difference between those cultures and ours, is that no psychoactive substance falls into consumerist logic. There are times and places for tobacco, just like there are for the coca leaf and for other similar plants.

Usually they form part of well-defined collective rituals. They use these plants to make themselves wiser. But Westerners just become more foolish when they use them.

There’s an old saying that goes: “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” We can apply this to anyone who has a smoking habit. They live by bringing in and letting out smoke, meanwhile the tobacco burns and turns into ash.

Smoking addicts have something burning inside them. Their response is to push it away with a cigarette and let it consume them.

But here’s one truth: it has been proven that when the psychological reasons for smoking disappear, nicotine addiction is easy to beat. That’s something worth thinking about.

Images courtesy of Eloïse Heritier