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Why quitting smoking is the most brutal habit change

Smoking is a habit.

Smoking is also an addiction.

That’s why quitting smoking is more than a habit change and probably one of the hardest things to do.

I talked to all the ex-smokers I know. Friends, my cousin and my dad, they all gave me helpful in-depth information into the struggles of quitting smoking. After listening to their stories I decided that quitting smoking must be the most brutal habit change of all.

All in all, I found that different aspects of quitting smoking mix and mingle, are equally important and impossible to separate. They involve the psychological aspects of habit change, the physical aspects of withdrawal symptoms and the ongoing struggles with cravings.

Psychological struggles while quitting smoking

Why do we enjoy smoking? Smoking a cigarette is often associated with taking a break and having a moment of peace and relaxation. This is your moment! For a brief moment, you can turn away from stress and worries and enjoy the now and here.


A friend, who had stopped smoking, told me that she missed these moments to herself. She chose an apple as a replacement for her cigarette and continued taking her ‘time out’.

Triggers for smoking

Places and situations trigger smoking. Often smoking is the first thing in the morning, together with a cup of coffee or tea. A break at work or finishing lunch represent common triggers for smoking as well. While trying to change smoking as a habit you have to avoid or change the triggers as well.

One friend told me that she used to drink coffee while smoking. Avoiding the trigger would have been avoiding coffee. But she didn’t want to suffer more and lose the pleasure of coffee as well. So she stopped sugar in the coffee and sat down at a different location. Interestingly, this was change enough to stop the trigger for smoking.


Another friend said she started knitting to keep her fingers busy while others were eating dark chocolate, chewed a chewing gum or indulged in lollipops instead of smoking.

Sometimes, you need to trick yourself a little bit. For example, my cousin failed in quitting smoking for years. Then he decided to take a break from smoking instead of totally quitting. This was 3 years ago. He is still on his break.

Unavoidable withdrawal symptoms while quitting smoking

It takes about 3 days for the body to be totally nicotine-free.

During this time withdrawal symptoms are brutal and real. Lots of people can’t tolerate the symptoms and smoke again. The symptoms include restlessness, headaches, increased coughing, and nervousness, a strong urge to smoke, irritability and even anger. One my friends referred me to her husband as a witness to her outbreaks of nervousness and anger feelings after quitting smoking.


These symptoms are mostly due to the detoxifying of the body and the brain’s adjustment to the lack of nicotine. While detoxifying happens in the body, the lack of nicotine affects the brain.

Detoxifying the body

Did you know that there are around 3,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke? No wonder once my friends stopped smoking their bodies started to detoxify. The stored up toxins were released into their bloodstream to be eliminated. and they felt all the above-mentioned detoxification symptoms, plus unwanted cigarette taste in their mouth. 

Lack of nicotine in the brain

Nicotine is a tiny molecule, small enough to pass through a barrier into the brain (the so-called ‘blood-brain-barrier’) where it activates the release of dopamine. Thus, a constant high amount of nicotine in the brain leads to more and more activated dopamine pathways, more than normal. Once we stop smoking, it takes about 21 days to go back to the ‘normal’ brain of a non-smoker. During this time the brain badly demands nicotine.

Denying the brain its request for nicotine seems to be the quickest recovery, however, one friend was extremely successful with nicotine replacement patches. The problem is that a craving attack can make minutes feel like hours. Having a plan of what to do instead of smoking is helpful. You can find more practical tips a little later at dealing with cravings.

If you are aware of it, you can prepare for it Click To Tweet

Weight gain

Everyone I talked to experienced weight gain. Everyone. It is the most frustrating part of quitting smoking. No matter how much they watched their diet or how much they increased their level of activity, nobody could avoid weight gain. It was actually one of the reasons why some started smoking again.

Positive effects of quitting smoking

If this is so horrible, why do we bother quitting smoking at all? Well, my cousin was most excited about his ability to breathe better and deeper as well as his ability to taste and smell better. Improved taste and smell were actually the number one achievement mentioned by all.

Worldwide, medical check-ups show that after quitting smoking the blood oxygen level increases to normal and carbon monoxide levels drop to normal. Blood pressure and pulse rate return to normal and damaged nerve endings regrow with the sense of smell and taste returning.

After 3 months, the lung function is beginning to improve. And after some more months, shortness of breath has decreased and the lungs can handle mucus better and catch lesser infections. After 1 year, the risk of coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke has dropped. After 10 years the risk of smoking-related cancer decreased by up to 50%.



Ongoing cravings after quitting smoking

When are we finally done with quitting smoking? In the first 3 days, the cravings are horrible due to the lack of nicotine in the brain. For about 10 more days cravings continue daily or even many times a day. After that, they get less.

However, smoking seems to stick in the memory for years. Everyone confirmed this. One friend even told me that she was dreaming of smoking years after she quit. Her dream was so real that she smelled smoke after she woke up.

Dealing with cravings

This means that even if you haven’t smoked in years, you may always be somewhat susceptible to a smoking trigger. You can move away, change your name, or change your lifestyle, the little reminders of your former life as a smoker are still around. Cravings can suddenly pop up and ask you to smoke once again.

However, if you are aware of it, you can prepare for it. Think now of what you can do if a craving appears. Best, write a list and read it regularly.


  • You could call a good friend who supports your smoking free lifestyle.
  • You could sing or dance to music.
  • You go for a walk or a run.
  • You could let some chocolate melt in your mouth, make yourself a smoothie or find other ideas to keep your mouth busy.
  • You could calculate the money you save not smoking.
  • You could look for a place where smoking is not allowed.



Quitting smoking is hard because smoking is not only a habit but an addiction as well.

It involves habit change, withdrawal symptoms, and cravings.

Withdrawal symptoms result from detoxifying of the body and the lack of nicotine in the brain.

Weight gain presents a big frustration while quitting smoking.

Positive effects of quitting smoking are an improved overall health and an improved ability to taste and smell.

Even after years, you are still somewhat susceptible to a smoking trigger.

Best is to be prepared for this and have a plan of what to do once a craving appears.


Final thoughts

Are you thinking of quitting smoking?

Then you should understand what it takes and what can happen to you, your brain and body.

It is hard and brutal, but possible and worth it.

The positive effects can serve you as a motivation.

A plan of alternatives to cravings can serve you as a rescue.

A support group or a good friend can help you through the hard times.

Make a plan and get ready.

Will you try it?


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Hi I'm Ilka, a self-development writer and lovable scientist with a knowledgeable expertise in brain science. I help people realize the power our behavior has on our brain - and the other way around.

Carl D'Agostino - January 3, 2017

Clean and sober almost 15 years but still with the cigarettes.

    simplyilka - January 3, 2017

    Hi Carl!

    I really learned that smoking is a story by itself. Thumbs up for clean and sober 🙂

    All the best, Ilka

Ravi Chahar - January 3, 2017

Hey Ilka,

I am not a big fan of smokers. I also dream why do people smoke. One of my friends tried to quit smoking and that was disastrous.

Many people face the mental illness problems after this habit change. I don’t really know about biological effects.

I am glad that you elaborated it in detail.

    simplyilka - January 3, 2017

    Hi Ravi!

    I’m glad you liked the post and learned something.

    Lots of smokers wish they would have never started. It is disastrous because of all their bodies have to go through. It’s good to understand this so that we can accept the struggle smokers go through.

    Have a great week! – Ilka

Shivankar - January 3, 2017

This is extraordinary step to take for most of the smokers. That is why they never even try to take the first step. I still remember my college days when I managed to drag two of my friends out from smoking. But they were disaster for a couple of months, but now they thank me what I did to them at that point of time.
Shivankar recently posted…No Crop Apps For Instagram – Best ListMy Profile

    simplyilka - January 3, 2017

    Hi Shivankar!

    Yes, quitting smoking is a big step for every smoker. I have respect for everyone you managed to quit.

    I think it is really helpful to have a good friend and support while going through the touch part of quitting. Well done for sticking with your frindes 🙂

    All the best to you! – Ilka

Oloriel - January 3, 2017

Hey, I stopped smoking (I won’t say I quit it because that would be lying. I want to smoke. Now. Later as well. Then, smoke some more. I am just not doing it.) about 26 days ago (I figured stopping to count helps me!) and all I wanted to say to others planing or wanting to quit is: don’t feel bad that YOU don’t feel like wanting to quite and don’t feel bad if you need support from others. Like I said, I don’t wanna quit. But my husband wants me to quit, and I am pretendin I am doing it for him, cause its easier.

    simplyilka - January 3, 2017

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I think it is very helpful to others.

    Yes, it is ok to need support. If you have support, you are actually one of the lucky ones. And yes, if you say you stopped for now but didn’t quit it’s ok as well. I mentioned my cousin in the post who says he didn’t quit. he’s just on a break. (The break goes on for 3 years now).

    I wish you all the best and hope the cravings will get better soon. You made it through the first days. Thumbs up for that 🙂

Ella - January 3, 2017

Hey Ilka,

I’m not a smoker but many of my friends smoke. Most of them tried to quit at some point. I should ask them why they wanted to stop and why they didn’t. Maybe I can be their support??? Never thought of it. Haha. It sure seems hard.

    simplyilka - January 3, 2017

    Hi Ella!

    Why not being the support if your friends are looking for it? It’s actually a lovely idea. Good luck 🙂

Donna Merrill - January 6, 2017

Hi Ilka,

My goodness you are right on topic here. I quit smoking a while back and still have smoking dreams. My “triggers” are still with me and I do have to remind myself here and there.

When I was quitting I was prepared. I had crunchy veggies all cleaned and sliced to munch on. And yes….there is weight gain no matter what you do. But I didn’t let that stop me. I was mentally prepared by purchasing a new wardrobe. Why not? I was smoking that money away lol.

Little things for positive reinforcement worked…with the patch lol.

Donna Merrill recently posted…8 Blogging Fears You Can OvercomeMy Profile

simplyilka - January 8, 2017

Hi Donna!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your story. You can be really proud of yourself for quitting. Munching on crunchy veggies sounds like a great idea.

Isn’t it interesting that the ‘triggers’ stay? Thanks for confirming.

All the best to you.


Maria - April 16, 2017

A truly valuable post, Ilka! You have highlighted the necessity to quit smoking for everyone so perfectly! I love everything that you have mentioned however, I would also love to suggest to you the effectiveness of e-cigarettes in quitting. They helped my aunt largely and today she no longer smokes!
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Sonam - August 10, 2017

I have been trying so many Ways to Quit Smoking and finally I am living smoke free for 6 months.

    simplyilka - October 14, 2017

    That is awesome Sonam! I am very happy for you.Thats’s a big achievement.

    Best, Ilka

T. Always - August 29, 2017

What are your thoughts on trying to quit smoking with e-cigarettes?

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