Cigarette smoking: attentional mediation of anxiety as a predictor of nicotine withdrawal severity



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Texas Tech University


Although a majority of cigarette smokers report that they smoke to relieve anxiety (Schneider & Houston, 1970), studies examining the anxiolytic properties of smoking have yielded equivocal results. Kassel and colleagues proposed that the anxiolytic effects of nicotine might be mediated by the presence or absence of distracting stimuli (Kassel & Shiffman, 1997; Kassel & Unrod, 2000). More specifically, Kassel and Shiffman (1997) postulated that smoking “constrains smokers’ attention to the most immediate and salient stimuli in their environment—when such stimuli are available” (p. 360). As a result, smokers are more likely to focus on immediate and distracting stimuli than more distal anxiogenic stimuli, thus reducing anxious mood. Further, smokers who rely more heavily on attentional mediation to relieve anxiety may experience more severe nicotine withdrawal, which may ultimately make it more difficult for them to quit smoking. The current study was designed to assess the degree to which attentional mediation influences the experience of self-reported nicotine withdrawal severity in a sample of 21 adult heavy smokers. Participants completed the attentional mediation paradigm, as developed by Kassel and Shiffman (1997), and then abstained from smoking for 24 hours. As expected, results indicated that anxiety and withdrawal symptoms increased during abstinence from smoking. However, the primary hypothesis was not supported: smokers who displayed greater reductions in anxiety in the presence of a distracting stimulus did not experience more severe nicotine withdrawal. These findings leave the relationship between anxiety and nicotine withdrawal open to speculation. Implications and directions for future research are discussed.