The vast majority of smokers start for just one reason. It’s because we humans are herd animals. We need to belong to a group. Most smokers start in their teen years, and sometimes even younger. And, during those early years, smoking is a way to join a rather well defined and seemingly select group.
If you watch High School students hanging around, you’ll notice that the smokers not only tend to stand together, they will stand in a circle facing inwards. For other young people the ticket of admission to that circle seems to be smoking, so they start.
Afterwards, smokers will develop associations to smoking that have nothing to do with the initial impulse to join the circle. A great many will come to believe that smoking has benefits like relaxation, or that it’s an excuse to take a break from work.
What happens is that nicotine withdrawal will cause a mild craving sensation that goes away for a while after a cigarette. The sense of relief is accompanied with a release of the tension that was created by the craving in the first place. Then the person begins to believe that smoking causes relaxation, or a sense of relief in general, even though nicotine is a stimulant.
The old adage about seeing is believing is actually backwards. The truth is that we believe determines what we see and experience. Relaxation in response to smoking is more due to a slick piece of inadvertent self hypnosis than any response to the drug. Smokers believe that they will get relief from their stress if they smoke, so they do…sort of. If you’ve ever watched an upset smoker burn through one cigarette after another, you’ll have noticed that not only do they stay stressed, they smoke more than normal. Because the smoking isn’t actually calming them down, even though they believe it will, they keep putting more nicotine in their systems hoping for the relief that never comes.
Of course, some smokers start for unusual reasons. For example one of my clients told me that he started smoking at age 5. Apparently his parents thought it was cute to see a 5 year old smoking. This happened over 60 years ago, and it’s safe to assume that his parents had no idea of how smoking might harm the health of a child.
Another of my clients recently told me that she had started smoking in her early 20’s as a way of aggravating her life partner, who smoked. The partner was upset, of course, which was exactly the response that my client wanted. That is an example of what psychologists call secondary gain, and knowing my client’s unusual reason for starting smoking was a key in helping her quit for good.