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With China’s intense job market, high property prices and increasing cost of living, mental health experts say the pressure on citizens is growing every day. More people are suffering stress today than ever before. An investigation by a prominent Chinese university discovered that 90 percent of the country's business workers are stressed. So are many other members of our society.

Leaders are especially susceptible to stress. Is stress making you irritable, frustrated or angry? A certain amount of stress is helpful and healthy. But when it lasts too long or is too intense it can cause mental and physical problems. Symptoms of too much stress include:

  • Tiredness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Stomach aches
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Increased use of alcohol, cigarettes, drugs
  • Loss of focus
  • Conflict with family, friends, workmates and superiors

How do You Relax?

Several years ago, members of our team were lecturing to a group of medical students at a university in Wuhan. The topic of the discussion was how to use leadership skills to change the culture of smoking. After the lecture, a young surgeon came and talked with us. He explained that he was an organ transplant specialist and most of his day was in the operating room. He held people’s lives in his hands and his work was very stressful. This highly skilled surgeon felt bad telling us that he smoked to handle the pressure and anxiety of his job.

How well do you cope with stress and how do you relax?

Temporary Relief

Smokers often depend on a few minutes with a cigarette to calm nerves. They use smoking as a tool to manage and reduce stress. But studies have shown that smoking increases stress. It is non-smokers who enjoy lower levels of stress.

The satisfaction and relaxation provided by smoking is only temporary. One of the strongest chemicals in cigarette smoke is nicotine. When smoke is inhaled into the lungs, nicotine transfers to the blood stream and travels the brain within about 10 seconds. The chemical effect is quick but it does not last long.

Nicotine has 2 chemical effects:

  • Stimulation—Immediate stimulation of the brain and the body’s nervous system feels pleasant for a few minutes.
  • Relaxation—Stimulation is soon replaced by a period of relaxation.

Immediate stimulation provides high feelings, which are then followed by a short time of relaxation. However, when the stimulation stops, it is replaced with unpleasant and stressful feelings.

Smoking Causes Stress

Smokers may not realize their addiction to nicotine is actually generating long-term stress. Every cigarette is followed by a time of increased stress. When smokers cannot smoke they begin to feel nervous, irritable and uncomfortable. When the pleasant chemical stimulation from smoking stops, their brains crave more. These unpleasant and stressful feelings cause them to reach for another cigarette in the same way drug users crave more heroin.

Powerful Drug

Nicotine is a powerful and addicting drug that smokers use to control their emotions. If they feel lethargic or moody, a cigarette brightens them up. If they feel nervous or agitated, a cigarette can calm them down.

When smokers quit, they feel like they have lost the ability to modulate their emotions. This is very unpleasant for a few weeks until nicotine receptors in the brain begin to die. If smokers want to quit, it is important for them to learn healthy ways to manage stress.

Tips to Reduce Stress

As smokers try to quit, several easy techniques can help calm their nerves and reduce stress. Try them yourself when you are feeling especially stressed and share them with your smoking friends. Many studies have proven the effectiveness of these simple solutions.

  1. Relax your muscles:
    • Drop your shoulders and let your arms hang loose
    • Turn your head and neck forward and backward, then side to side
    • Move your head around in a circle to relax your neck muscles
  2. Breathe deeply:
    • Take one slow breath that lasts for 15 seconds
    • Let your stomach stick out so you can take in more air
    • Slowly breath out so your stomach becomes flat
    • Try to take only 2 or 3 breaths in 60 seconds for a few minutes
    • Your heart rate will slow and your blood pressure will go down
  3. Take a walk
    • Swing your arms
    • Loosen the muscles in your body
    • Whistle or sing a song
    • Think positive and happy thoughts

Smoking Kills

Because cigarettes quickly satisfy strong emotional needs, some people continue to smoke, even when they know it is killing them. I have been a physician for over 50 years and many patients have told me they would rather die younger than give up smoking.

Years ago, before American doctors fully understood the deadly effect of smoking, I would come out of surgery at the hospital to find several other surgeons my own age relaxing with their cigarettes. The air in the surgeon’s lounge would be full of smoke. These doctors were thoracic surgeons, cardiac surgeons and general surgeons who opened human bodies almost every day.

Sometimes I would ask, “How can you smoke when you see the results and know how it is affecting your own body?” Their usual answer was, “I can not stop. I know it’s bad for me but my work is so stressful I need to smoke.”

Sadly, every one of those surgeons died many years ago. Their method of reducing stress killed them. On the other hand, I am 84 years of age. Having never smoked I am alive and well, active and alert.

Be a Leader

Your country needs your leadership skills. A recent survey of Chinese citizens shows that:

  • 65% think smoking does little or no harm
  • 60% do not think smoking causes lung cancer
  • 96% do not know smoking causes heart disease

As a doctor or health care worker, you have the ability and responsibility to teach people around you that smoking kills.

How can you help smokers find better ways to relieve stress?

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