Every smoker knows this joke: Quitting cigarettes is easy. I’ve done it a hundred times.
Most of the 19% of Americans who smoke would like to quit for good, and may have made it their New Year’s resolution to stop. Sadly, many might fail because giving up cigarettes is incredibly tough. Nicotine is extremely addictive, and cigarettes are designed to deliver nicotine in the most efficient way.
“It breaks my heart that people are frustrated with themselves when they have trouble quitting,” says Miranda Anderson, a wellbeing coach for Onlife Health who counsels many people who want to quit their tobacco habit.
“It’s not just a case of mind over matter; this is a chemical addiction that is insidious.”
Tough as it is, quitting can be done. Here is some advice on how to get through the tough times in the journey from smoker to non-smoker.
1. Understand what you are facing when you quit
“Smoking is both a physical and psychological habit,” Anderson says. “For some smoking is like a best friend, so quitting is almost like a break-up. The thing about smoking is that the cigarette is designed to get you addicted to nicotine. And then there’s the feel of the cigarette, the hand to mouth action — so there’s a psychological habit to deal with also.”
Nicotine replacement therapy — the nicotine patch, nicotine gum or lozenges — can be combined with something tactile, like chewing on a toothpick or straw, to address both the chemical and the behavioral addiction to cigarettes.
2. Navigate quitting when your partner smokes
This can be a tricky situation. Ideally a spouse will offer support, but often a steadfast smoker feels that their partner is abandoning them by quitting, and so may unwittingly undermine their efforts. In either situation, the solution is to clear the air — literally and figuratively.
“Lots of people who quit but have a spouse who smokes have success in creating smoke-free zones,” says Anderson. “Talk it over and come to an agreement. It may be that there will be no smoking in the car, or at the table after dinner. And if you don’t feel that your spouse is being supportive, be very open in talking about that and addressing it.”
3. Get past the rituals
Every smoker has those moments when they automatically reach for a cigarette, such as after a meal or while driving to work. Those habits are just as strong as the nicotine addiction because they intertwine with it.
“Nicotine mimics acetylcholine, a chemical in the body that sends signals to the brain that affect mood, appetite and memory,” says Anderson. “It is so addictive that it leads you to associate mundane activities with getting that fix of the drug you crave. So the smoker is actually training their body to expect a calm, relaxing feeling when they engage in those activities.”
Anderson suggests that smokers keep track of their cigarette schedule, noting the times and situations when they are most likely to smoke.
“So many people have a routine to their smoking, and in those cases, they can figure out which will be the easiest cigarette to give up and which will be the hardest,” she says. “Then they can mentally prepare to tackle the hardest situations before they face them.”
4. Recover from lapses
That joke at the top of the page? It’s true.
It takes most smokers up to 30 attempts before they actually succeed in breaking the habit.
The first time they give in and smoke “just one” may be a week into going smoke-free or years later. Sometime down the line, because they didn’t go out and buy a pack after that “one,” they have another and believe they can be an occasional smoker.
“That exact scenario is how you go from a lapse to full-blown relapse,” says Anderson. “To avoid that, begin with the end in mind. Be mindful of what you are doing. Take a step back and think about what is going on with you even as you smoke that cigarette.”
This can be a turning point when you reinforce your resolve. The technique of mindfulness can help you turn away from that momentary temptation to smoke.
5. Know that smoking is tied to self-image
For some, lighting up shows their rebellious streak or makes them part of the gang at work. Giving up cigarettes means giving up a part of themselves.
“It’s very difficult to quit if you think of smoking as being part of who you are,” says Anderson. “You may not be ready to quit, but if you are in a contemplation stage, it can be helpful to start with visualization. What does it look like if you meet up with your friends and don’t light up? Even if you keep smoking, you can take that first step of thinking about what being a non-smoker could look like.”
6. Plan to deal with frustration or stress without a cigarette
Smoking when you’re angry feels good. It’s a scientific fact.
Nicotine leads to the release of dopamine in your body, which helps you relax.
“The stress cigarette is the hardest one to give up, and often the one that leads to relapse,” Anderson confirms. “We always talk about what that situation looks like without a cigarette. Reaching for the cigarette is a physically calming thing, but there is the other side of it, the behavioral component. What do you do you when you’re in a stressful situation and go off to have a cigarette? You are leaving the situation, taking a break from the stress. You physically get away, and you can do that without having a cigarette by taking a walk.”
Quitting smoking is hard. It’s important and empowering to know that. Find people who will support your efforts and get you past the tough times. Be ready for challenges. And if you have a lapse, brush it off and continue on your journey.