Per the New York Times, smoking does not actually relieve stress. Or, rather, it creates more stress than it relieves:
A year later, 41 percent had managed to stay abstinent. After controlling for several factors, the scientists found that the abstainers had “a significantly larger decrease in perceived stress,” roughly a 20 percent drop, compared with the continuing smokers, who showed little change.
The scientists’ hypothesis was that the continuing smokers were dealing with uncomfortable cravings between cigarettes multiple times a day, while the abstainers, after facing some initial withdrawal, had greater freedom from nicotine cravings and thus had eliminated a frequent and significant source of stress.
Meh. I don’t think that’s why. Or that’s not the whole reason why. Rather, I think it’s more like recent studies that have demonstrated that caffeine consumers are generally more tired than those that don’t consume caffeine. With caffeine, you’re in a sense shortcircuiting your body telling you that you need rest and sleep. So you respond by consuming more caffeine. That pushes you along until it wears off and you consume some more and so on. Oh, and you don’t sleep as well when you are resting. It provides short-term relief at long-term cost.
And so it is with cigarettes and stress. Yes, I think that the stress caused by wanting a cigarette and not being able to have one plays a role. However, it’s also the case that an over-reliance on cigarettes short-circuits your coping mechanisms when it comes to stress. I know that during periods of abstinence when I am feeling stressed, I have no choice but to decompress while doing something else. I have to deal with whatever is stressing me. I have to develop coping mechanisms. Once I get over the hump, the worst cravings come not from stress at all but rather from other precursors (stomach irritation, for example) or cues (doing something that I am used to smoking while I am doing, such as drinking). Eventually I get over the stomach irritation reflex as well. The cues are a bit harder because they come one at a time. I can conquer one cue and then three months later be confronted with another.