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.
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.
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?