Nearly half of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are smokers, and the habit may actually make their condition worse.
San Diego psychologist Chris Johnson is an expert on combat stress. He said people suffering from PTSD are likely to be lighting up to make themselves feel better, but he said self-medicating with a cigarette may be preventing patients from getting the help they need.
The disorder is often characterized by disturbing flashbacks, anxiety, irritability and insomnia. For veterans, when a reaction is triggered, it can be similar to being back in combat.
"In the short term, it's a harmless reaction," Johnson said. "But it's difficult to get people to understand that because the last time they felt like that, their life was in danger."
Johnson said he is not surprised that new research shows that half of the people with the disorder are reaching for a cigarette.
"They're looking for anything that will help them to not feel that way," Johnson said.
Johnson said new research shows people with PTSD who smoked had more anxiety, more negative emotion and stress than those who didn't. And the lasting negative health effects are also a concern.
"Similar to alcohol, it has short-term relief effects but long-term damaging effects," Johnson said.
Johnson said using substances as an avoidance mechanism can make things worse. He said the toughest patients to treat are those who have put off getting help for many years. His advice: The sooner patients can be treated following the trauma the better.
Experts said substance-abuse disorders are high among those suffering from PTSD. Although many smoke, others wind up dependent on alcohol, anxiety pills and sometimes illegal drugs.