Toxic Cravings: Why We Want to Smoke (or eat, or call an ex…) When We’re Stressed


Ask any student about the most stressful time of the semester and I’m sure they’ll either say “midterms” or “finals” or both. Last week, I was in the same stressed-out boat as my fellow peers, and something peculiar happened. I had serious toxic cravings to smoke cigarettes; something inside me really just wanted to take a slow drag despite not being a smoker. It’s no shock that cigarettes are incredibly bad for you, so why would I want one?

It’s not uncommon to want something like a cigarette or a glass of wine when we’re stressed. But why, more times than not, do we crave those “bad for you” things instead of the “good for you” when we’re stressed? It all boils down to how our body reacts when we feel stressed or anxious.

When we feel stress, our body floods with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol is actually a hormone that can increase appetite and causes cravings for sugary and fatty foods (nutritionally bad) which sometimes leads to overeating. Overeating is most often associated with stress and other emotional factors, and can lead to serious health complications like obesity.

toxic cravings

In terms of smoking and drinking, we look at these as activities that will calm us down, especially since alcohol is a depressant. Nicotine releases another hormone, dopamine, into your bloodstream and makes you feel happier. In the end, smoking can actually cause more stress, physically on your lungs and mentally if you feel guilty about it afterward.

Like I said before, alcohol is a depressant, so it will relax you. However, this is a short term effect, and the repeated use of alcohol can harm your body immensely. Just like nicotine, alcohol has been shown to have several long term physical and psychological effects on the body, and also ignites more stress.

We’ve talked a lot about physically harmful behaviors when we feel stressed, but there are also psychologically destructive behaviors too.

Calling your ex or reaching out to someone else who has hurt you is something many people do when they feel stressed. We have this craving to hear that person’s voice and tell us it’ll be okay, just like they did in the past. But for the sake of your mentality, don’t do this! Establishing contact with someone who hurt you can bring up old feelings, prevent you from moving forward, and cause discord in your current relationships, which are things that add even more stress in our lives.

While we might have these destructive cravings, we can substitute them for another, more productive and healthy substance or activity. Instead of lighting up a cigarette, lace up your gym shoes and go for a run. Instead of calling your ex (I know, you think it’ll be so comforting), call up a friend or parent and talk about how you’re feeling. Instead of binge drinking or eating, take a break and binge Netflix.

Taking care of yourself, both physically and mentally, is the best way to combat stress.

Even doing yoga can help kick cravings to the curb.

If you want to smoke or drink or overeat or call up that ex that hurt you, channel the stress you’re feeling into doing something productive. The stress will pass, but the regret or damage from partaking in a destructive activity could create additional problems or even add to the stress you already have.

Also published on Medium.