We all know the health risks of smoking, but that doesn’t make it any easier to kick the habit. Whether you’re an occasional teen smoker or a lifetime pack-a-day smoker, quitting can be really tough.
Smoking tobacco is both a physical addiction and a psychological habit. The nicotine from cigarettes provides a temporary—and addictive—high. Eliminating that regular fix of nicotine causes your body to experience physical withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Because of nicotine’s “feel good” effect on the brain, you may turn to cigarettes as a quick and reliable way to boost your outlook, relieve stress, and unwind. Smoking can also be a way of coping with depression, anxiety, or even boredom. Quitting means finding different, healthier ways to cope with those feelings.
Smoking is also ingrained as a daily ritual. It may be an automatic response for you to smoke a cigarette with your morning coffee while taking a break at work or school, or on your commute home at the end of a hectic day. Or maybe your friends, family, or colleagues smoke, and it’s become part of the way you relate with them.
To successfully stop smoking, you’ll need to address both the addiction and the habits and routines that go along with it. But it can be done. With the right support and quit plan, any smoker can kick the addiction—even if you’ve tried and failed multiple times before.
Your personal stop smoking plan
While some smokers successfully quit by going cold turkey, most people do better with a tailored plan to keep themselves on track. A good quit plan addresses both the short-term challenge of stopping smoking and the long-term challenge of preventing relapse. It should also be tailored to your specific needs and smoking habits.
Questions to ask yourself
Take the time to think of what kind of smoker you are, which moments of your life call for a cigarette, and why. This will help you to identify which tips, techniques, or therapies may be most beneficial for you.
Are you a very heavy smoker (more than a pack a day)? Or are you more of a social smoker? Would a simple nicotine patch do the job?
Are there certain activities, places, or people you associate with smoking? Do you feel the need to smoke after every meal or whenever you break for coffee?
Do you reach for cigarettes when you’re feeling stressed or down? Or is your cigarette smoking linked to other addictions, such as alcohol or gambling?
Identify your smoking triggers
One of the best things you can do to help yourself quit is to identify the things that make you want to smoke, including specific situations, activities, feelings, and people.
Keep a craving journal
A craving journal can help you zero in on your patterns and triggers. For a week or so leading up to your quit date, keep a log of your smoking. Note the moments in each day when you crave a cigarette:
- What time was it?
- How intense was the craving (on a scale of 1-10)?
- What were you doing?
- Who were you with?
- How were you feeling?
- How did you feel after smoking?
Do you smoke to relieve unpleasant feelings?
Many of us smoke to manage unpleasant feelings such as stress, depression, loneliness, and anxiety. When you have a bad day, it can seem like cigarettes are your only friend. As much comfort as cigarettes provide, though, it’s important to remember that there are healthier and more effective ways to keep unpleasant feelings in check. These may include exercising, meditating, relaxation strategies, or simple breathing exercises.
For many people, an important aspect of giving up smoking is to find alternate ways to handle these difficult feelings without turning to cigarettes. Even when cigarettes are no longer a part of your life, the painful and unpleasant feelings that may have prompted you to smoke in the past will still remain. So it’s worth spending some time thinking about the different ways you intend to deal with stressful situations and the daily irritations that would normally have you lighting up.
Tips for avoiding common triggers
Alcohol. Many people smoke when they drink. Try switching to non-alcoholic drinks or drinking only in places where smoking inside is prohibited. Alternatively, try snacking on nuts, chewing on a cocktail stick, or sucking on a straw.
Other smokers. When friends, family, and co-workers smoke around you, it can be doubly difficult to give up or avoid relapse. Talk about your decision to quit so people know they won’t be able to smoke when you’re in the car with them or taking a coffee break together. In your workplace, find non-smokers to have your breaks with or find other things to do, such as taking a walk.
End of a meal. For some smokers, ending a meal means lighting up, and the prospect of giving that up may appear daunting. However, you can try replacing that moment after a meal with something else, such as a piece of fruit, a healthy dessert, a square of chocolate, or a stick of gum.
Coping with nicotine withdrawal symptoms
Once you stop smoking, you’ll likely experience a number of physical symptoms as your body withdraws from nicotine. Nicotine withdrawal begins quickly, usually starting within an hour of the last cigarette and peaking two to three days later. Withdrawal symptoms can last for a few days to several weeks and differ from person to person.
Common nicotine withdrawal symptoms include:
- Cigarette cravings
- Irritability, frustration, or anger
- Anxiety or nervousness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased appetite
- Increased coughing
- Constipation or upset stomach
- Decreased heart rate
As unpleasant as these withdrawal symptoms may be, it’s important to remember that they are only temporary. They will get better in a few weeks as the toxins are flushed from your body. In the meantime, let your friends and family know that you won’t be your usual self and ask for their understanding.
Manage cigarette cravings
While avoiding smoking triggers will help reduce your urge to smoke, you probably can’t avoid cigarette cravings entirely. Fortunately, cravings don’t last long—typically, about 5 or 10 minutes. If you’re tempted to light up, remind yourself that the craving will soon pass and try to wait it out. It helps to be prepared in advance by having strategies to cope with cravings.
Distract yourself. Do the dishes, turn on the TV, take a shower, or call a friend. The activity doesn’t matter as long as it gets your mind off smoking.
Remind yourself why you quit. Focus on your reasons for quitting, including the health benefits (lowering your risk for heart disease and lung cancer, for example), improved appearance, the money you’re saving, and enhanced self-esteem.
Get out of a tempting situation. Where you are or what you’re doing maybe trigger the craving. If so, a change of scenery can make all the difference.
Reward yourself. Reinforce your victories. Whenever you triumph over a craving, give yourself a reward to keep yourself motivated.
You may also gain weight if you replace the oral gratification of smoking with eating unhealthy comfort foods. Therefore, it’s important to find other, healthy ways to deal with unpleasant feelings such as stress, anxiety, or boredom rather than mindless, emotional eating.
Nurture yourself. Instead of turning to cigarettes or food when you feel stressed, anxious, or depressed, learn new ways to quickly soothe yourself. Listen to uplifting music, play with a pet, or sip a cup of hot tea, for example.
Learn to eat mindfully. Emotional eating tends to be automatic and virtually mindless. It’s easy to polish off a tub of ice cream while zoning out in front of the TV or staring at your phone. But by removing distractions when you eat, it’s easier to focus on how much you’re eating and tune into your body and how you’re really feeling. Are you really still hungry or eating for another reason?
Drink lots of water. Drinking at least six to eight 8 oz. glasses will help you feel full and keep you from eating when you’re not hungry. Water will also help flush toxins from your body.
Take a walk. Not only will it help you burn calories and keep the weight off, but it will also help alleviate feelings of stress and frustration that accompany smoking withdrawal.
Snack on guilt-free foods. Good choices include sugar-free gum, carrot and celery sticks, or sliced bell peppers or jicama.
Helping a loved one to stop smoking
It’s important to remember that you cannot make a friend or loved one give up cigarettes; the decision has to be theirs. But if they do make the decision to stop smoking, you can offer support and encouragement and try to ease the stress of quitting. Investigate the different treatment options available and talk them through with the smoker; just be careful never to preach or judge. You can also help a smoker overcome cravings by pursuing other activities with them, and by keeping smoking substitutes, such as gum, on hand.
If a loved one slips or relapses, don’t make them feel guilty. Congratulate them on the time they went without cigarettes and encourage them to try again. Your support can make all the difference in helping your loved one eventually kick the habit for good.