By Sue Shekut, Owner, Working Well Massage, Licensed Massage Therapist, Certified Wellness Coach, ACSM Personal Trainer
Non smokers don’t get it. I’ve heard nonsmokers say, “Why don’t you just quit?” Or “How can any intelligent person smoke?” (Knowing what we know about smoking and health.) Smoking addiction isn’t a rational decision. People don’t get up in the morning and say, “Gee, I think I will fill my lungs with carcinogens.” Like any addiction, smoking is a habit and a physical dependence on a powerful chemical substance. The addiction to nicotine can override people’s intellectual beliefs about health. If you’ve ever had the stomach flu or persistent diarrhea, you know what it’s like to have an overwhelming urge you can’t control. Being addicted to smoking is a similar situation. It gives people strong urges that are very difficult to deny or control.
Read more from the American Cancer Society about nicotine withdrawal:
Nicotine withdrawal symptoms can lead quitters back to smoking
When smokers try to cut back or quit, the lack of nicotine leads to withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal is both physical and mental. Physically, the body reacts to the absence of nicotine. Mentally, the smoker is faced with giving up a habit, which calls for a major change in behavior. Both the physical and mental factors must be addressed for the quitting process to work.
Those who have smoked regularly for a few weeks or longer, and suddenly stop using tobacco or greatly reduce the amount smoked, will have withdrawal symptoms. Symptoms usually start within a few hours of the last cigarette and peak about 2 to 3 days later when most of the nicotine and its by-products are out of the body. Withdrawal symptoms can last for a few days to up to several weeks. They will get better every day that you stay smoke-free.
Withdrawal symptoms can include any of the following:
- dizziness (which may only last 1 to 2 days after quitting)
- feelings of frustration, impatience, and anger
- sleep disturbances, including having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, and having bad dreams or even nightmares
- trouble concentrating
- restlessness or boredom
- increased appetite
- weight gain
- constipation and gas
- cough, dry mouth, sore throat, and nasal drip
- chest tightness
These symptoms can lead the smoker to start smoking cigarettes again to boost blood levels of nicotine back to a level where there are no symptoms. (For information on coping with withdrawal, see the section, “How to quit.”)
Smoking also makes your body get rid of some drugs faster than usual. When you quit smoking, it may change the way your body handles medicines. Ask your doctor if any medicines you take regularly need to be checked or changed after you quit.
Dealing with withdrawal
Withdrawal from nicotine has 2 parts — the physical and the mental. The physical symptoms, while annoying, are not life-threatening. Nicotine replacement and other medicines can help reduce many of these physical symptoms. Most smokers find that the bigger challenge is the mental part of quitting.
If you have been smoking for any length of time, smoking has become linked with nearly everything you do — waking up in the morning, eating, reading, watching TV, and drinking coffee, for example. It will take time to “un-link” smoking from these activities. This is why, even if you are using a nicotine replacement, you may still have strong urges to smoke.
Rationalizations are sneaky
One way to overcome these urges or cravings is to notice and identify rationalizations as they come up. A rationalization is a mistaken thought that seems to make sense to you at the time, but the thought is not based on reality. If you choose to believe in such a thought, it can serve as a way to justify smoking. If you have tried to quit before, you will probably recognize many of these common rationalizations:
- I’ll just have one to get through this rough spot.
- Today is not a good day. I’ll quit tomorrow.
- It’s my only vice.
- How bad is smoking, really? Uncle Harry smoked all his life and he lived to be over 90.
- Air pollution is probably just as bad.
- You’ve got to die of something.
- Life is no fun without smoking.
You probably can add more to the list. As you go through the first few days without smoking, write down any rationalizations as they come up and recognize them for what they are: messages that can trick you into going back to smoking. Look out for them, because they always show up when you’re trying to quit. After you write down the idea, let it go from your mind. Be ready with a distraction, a plan of action, and other ways to re-direct your thoughts to something else.
Use the ideas below to help you stay committed to quitting.
Avoid temptation: Stay away from people and places where you are tempted to smoke. Later on you will be able to handle these with more confidence.
Change your habits: Switch to juices or water instead of alcohol or coffee. Take a different route to work. Take a brisk walk instead of a coffee break.
Alternatives: Use substitutes you can put in your mouth such as sugarless gum or hard candy, raw vegetables such as carrot sticks, or sunflower seeds. Some people chew on a coffee stirrer or a straw.
Activities: Do something to reduce your stress. Exercise or do hobbies that keep your hands busy, such as needlework or woodworking, which can help distract you from the urge to smoke. Take a hot bath, exercise, or read a book.
Deep breathing: When you were smoking, you breathed deeply as you inhaled the smoke. When the urge strikes now, breathe deeply and picture your lungs filling with fresh, clean air. Remind yourself of your reasons for quitting and the benefits you’ll gain as an ex-smoker.
Delay: If you feel that you are about to light up, delay. Tell yourself you must wait at least 10 minutes. Often this simple trick will allow you to move beyond the strong urge to smoke.
What you’re doing is not easy, so you deserve a reward. Put the money you would have spent on tobacco in a jar every day and then buy yourself a weekly treat. Buy a magazine or book, go out to eat, develop a new hobby, or take a yoga class. Or save the money for a major purchase. You can also reward yourself in ways that don’t cost money: visit a park, go to the library, and check local news listings for museums, community centers, and colleges that have free classes, exhibits, films, and other things to do.
Read more at the American Cancer Society’s website here.
Notice that many of the strategies for handing nicotine withdrawal are the same strategies people use for stress management!
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