Stress, Anxiety May Keep Women Smoking Women may have a harder time kicking their smoking habit than men do. Researchers say women are more likely to get stressed and reach for a cigarette when trying to quit, meaning it takes them more tries to stop for good.
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Stress, Anxiety May Keep Women Smoking

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Stress, Anxiety May Keep Women Smoking

Stress, Anxiety May Keep Women Smoking

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Today in Your Health, quitting smoking. It's not easy for anyone. We have two reports on the challenges. And we begin with NPR's Patti Neighmond, who tells us that some studies show women have a harder time swearing off cigarettes than men do. Researchers are trying to understand this gender difference and develop treatments to help women get off tobacco.

PATTI NEIGHMOND: Thirty-one-year-old Tonya Guess describes herself as a generally optimistic person, happily married and crazy about motherhood. But there's just this one gnawing problem: cigarettes.

Ms. TONYA GUESS: I want to quit very badly. I have a thousand reasons I want to quit. One, because I have a little girl and I don't want her to become familiar with smoking. I don't want her to think that it's normal. I want her to say yuck when she smells it. I want to quit for my health. I don't want to die early, because I have a little girl and I want to see her get married and grow up.

NEIGHMOND: Tonya's used nicotine replacement - both the gum and the patch - to help her quit. But even then, she says, something happens like this recent argument with her husband.

Ms. GUESS: I went outside and I called my girlfriend, but the first thing I did was light up a cigarette so I could actually think. And once I had the cigarette I felt calmer. I felt in control and just put myself in a place where I felt safe, where I felt comfortable and confident again.

NEIGHMOND: Carolyn Mazure says Tonya's reaction is typical of women smokes. Mazure is a psychologist at Yale Medical School who's researching ways to help women like Tonya quit smoking. She says women's addiction to nicotine can be more complicated and more often linked to emotions than men's.

Dr. CAROLYN MAZURE (Psychologist, Yale School of Medicine): Women often report that smoking is helpful in reducing negative mood, even enhancing a positive mood, in managing the stress of daily life. And as a consequence it often is more difficult for women to give up their cigarettes.

NEIGHMOND: Psychologist Saul Shiffman from the University of Pittsburgh says government surveys of former smokers show women and men ultimately quit at about the same rate. He also says it's clear that quitting is harder for women.

Dr. SAUL SHIFFMAN (Psychologist, University of Pittsburgh): The data from the federal government just counts the bodies, as it were. Counts how many are ex-smokers. And that's a function not only of how successful women are but how likely they are to try to quit, how many times they try to quit, and it includes people who haven't sought treatment. So both are accurate. They're answering different questions.

NEIGHMOND: Shiffman says that when researchers look at data from clinical trials involving people who seek treatment to help them quit, like the nicotine patch or gum, for example, women are less successful in their individual quit attempts than men.

Shiffman recently analyzed 12 clinical trials involving over 4,400 individuals who were trying to quit smoking. And overall, he says, women had 25 percent lower odds of quitting than men.

Dr. SHIFFMAN: We do know that acute emotion, getting upset suddenly, can have a big role in causing people to relapse once they've quit. And there's some speculation that women might be more likely to have that kind of emotional upset.

NEIGHMOND: And relapse, says Shiffman, is the name of the game, because for most people who try to quit on their own, about three-fourths of men and women go back to smoking within just one week.

Dr. SHIFFMAN: So essentially the key to quitting is avoiding relapse. And relapse starts with what we call a lapse, which is a specific episode when you haven't been smoking and you pick up a cigarette. And those are very likely to happen when people are emotionally upset.

NEIGHMOND: Researchers around the country are working to find treatments specifically for women. At Yale University, psychologist Sherry McKee is looking at how to abstain even in the face of stress and high emotions.

Ms. SHERRY MCKEE (Psychologist, Yale University): So we identify one or two situations that have really stressed somebody out. We have details like what were they wearing, where were they located, who was saying what to whom, what bodily reactions they were experiencing. So people come in and describe things like arguments with spouses, job losses - so very stressful events in their life.

NEIGHMOND: Then McKee and colleagues expose smokers to those scenarios and test to see if anxiety medication helps them stop lighting up.

Other researchers are also evaluating talk therapies. Sherry McKee.

Ms. MCKEE: The idea that you can get people to have a different response when they experience these negative mood states, rather than reaching for a cigarette, that they can engage in other activities that will help them improve their mood, like exercise and reaching out and getting social support from somebody, engaging in a distracting activity like going for a walk.

NEIGHMOND: So, between medication and therapy, researchers hope to identify which treatments help women like Tonya Guess quit cigarettes more easily.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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