Why Experiencing Trauma Makes Quitting Harder

Quitting smoking is hard, especially for people who have experienced traumatic events. Many people smoke to cope with the difficult feelings related to trauma.

Please note: This article discusses traumatic events. If you or someone you know needs support now, call or text 988 or chat 988Lifeline.org. 988 connects you with a trained crisis counselor who can help at any time of day or night.

Life events that can cause trauma

Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event or series of events.

Experiencing or witnessing many events and circumstances can cause trauma, including:

  • Domestic violence
  • Fires
  • Incarceration
  • Life-threatening illness
  • Military combat
  • Natural disasters
  • Physical assault
  • Serious accidents
  • Sexual assault
  • War

How trauma can affect you

Trauma can have negative effects on mental and physical health. People respond differently to trauma.

Emotional effects of trauma can include:

  • Confusion
  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Numbness
  • Oversensitivity
  • Difficulty making decisions and concentrating
  • Feeling disconnected from yourself or the world around you

Physical effects of trauma can include:

  • Problems with sleep and eating
  • Aches and pains
  • Nausea
  • Memories of the traumatic event can cause racing heartbeat or sweating

Trauma can cause problems in relationships and in everyday life. It can cause you to isolate yourself or feel disengaged from your usual social activities. Conflict and disagreements can also happen more frequently.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric condition. PTSD causes intense, disturbing, and long-lasting symptoms. About 10% of people who have experienced trauma develop PTSD. If you have, or think you may have PTSD, seek professional help for treatment.

Why quitting feels so hard

Quitting can be harder for some people who have experienced trauma. Some research finds, for example, that people with PTSD have higher levels of nicotine withdrawal symptoms. However, the reasons why trauma makes quitting harder are not fully understood.

People who have experienced trauma often have anxiety, depression, and stress. Smoking may feel like a way to cope with those feelings.

Understanding some basic facts about nicotine addiction may help explain why. Nicotine addiction happens because the nicotine in cigarettes changes your brain. Your brain connects nicotine with whatever you’re thinking, feeling, or doing at the time you smoke.

For example, you might smoke when you’re feeling down. The nicotine in cigarettes can temporarily make you feel better.

The feelings related to trauma then become a trigger for smoking. A trigger is something that reminds your brain to smoke. So, when you feel down, your brain begins to expect nicotine.

Over time, as you smoke, your brain expects more nicotine, more frequently. When your brain doesn’t get nicotine, you feel uncomfortable. This is nicotine withdrawal and it’s the reason you feel the urge to smoke.

People who have experienced trauma may have more and different triggers than people who have not experienced trauma. These triggers and urges to smoke can be harder to overcome.

It is possible to quit smoking, even if you have experienced trauma or have PTSD.

Resources available in the United States

988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline Logo

988 connects people to counselors who provide free and confidential emotional support and crisis counseling to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, and connect them to resources

Go to https://988lifeline.org/

Department of Health and Human Services Logo

Find free help for mental and emotional health issues.

Go to https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help