Teen Social Anxiety and Cigarette Smoking

You might see how social anxiety and smoking go together right away. Imagine yourself at a party. The weight of feeling like you don’t fit in becomes a thick wall between you and everyone else. You feel uncomfortable, like you’re the most unusual, abnormal person in the room. You pull out your box of cigarettes because one, it makes you look cool, and two, you’ve got something to do. Even though the social anxiety doesn’t go away, at least you’ve got something to hold onto. At least you’re feeling slightly more comfortable with a cigarette in your hand.


About one half of high school students in the United States have used tobacco. And as you can imagine, teen social anxiety can put young people at an increased risk for smoking. This was the hypothesis of one study done in 2012 by researchers at the University of California at Irvine. The Department of Psychology and Social Behavior conducted a research study with 402 students who were assessed every 30 minutes for up to 84 days. The students surveyed were those who reported smoking more than once during high school.


About 22% of high school students are current smokers and around 8% are those who smoke at least 20 days of the month. Although the rate of cigarette smoking has significantly decreased in the last 10-15 years, smoking remains to be an unhealthy pattern for teens. Additionally, the rate of those who begin smoking during adolescence remains quite high.


Teen social anxiety has been linked to smoking, but the study described above found different results. Instead of finding that anxiety causes smoking, research pointed out that teens were more likely to feel the urge to smoke when in social interactions compared to less socially anxious teens. The study found that highly socially anxious teens were equally or less likely to smoke then less socially anxious teens. It was the desire to smoke that became the differentiating factor.


Social Anxiety Disorder is an illness in which the fear of social situations, specifically fearing judgment and embarrassment in those situations, is excessive. A teen might be excessively worried about how he or she looks or will behave and might even avoid those situations to escape the anxiety, rather than enjoying that experience. Social phobia tends to also come within an extreme feeling of self-consciousness and a fear of humiliating oneself.


Unlike teen social anxiety, depression has been positively associated with an increased risk for smoking. Research has found that smoking is often a behavior that depressed teens engage in as a way to self-medicate. The study found that nicotine receptors in the brain actually improved mood in certain types of depression. The study found that those who smoke are more likely to have symptoms of depression than those who do not.


Furthermore, through their Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) monitors priority health-risk behaviors that play a role in the causes of death, disability, and social problems among teens. One of the health risk behaviors among adolescents is smoking. They found that behaviors that lead to tobacco use include trying cigarette smoking, smoking an entire cigarette before the age of 13, smoking a cigarette at least once in a week, and using various forms of smokeless tobacco.


One way to facilitate the cessation of smoking in teens, particularly for those who experience depression or social anxiety is to learn how to relax. Breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, and meditation can facilitate a sense of ease when fear and panic feel like they are going to take over. For instance, feeling fear is usually accompanied by shallow breathing. If an adolescent were to become conscious of his or her breathing right in the middle of feeling afraid, making the breath long and deep, this could shift his or her physiological state. This could be the tool that a teen uses instead of pulling out a cigarette. When a teen is at a party, deep breathing is a much healthier coping mechanism than smoking.