Many smokers think that lighting up helps them relax. They’re fooling themselves, experts say.
“Nicotine withdrawal makes people feel jittery and anxious, which smokers often confuse with feeling stressed,” says Steven Schroeder, MD, director of the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center at the University of California, San Francisco. “Lighting up makes them feel better, not because that cigarette eases stress but because it’s delivering the next dose of nicotine.”
Breaking free of nicotine addiction can be stressful, of course. Stress is one of the leading reasons why people falter in their efforts to quit. “Stress releases a brain chemical called epinephrine, which interferes with the ability to focus and think clearly,” says Bruce S. Rabin, MD, PhD, medical director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Healthy Lifestyle Program and an expert on stress. “When you’re trying to quit smoking, that can make it hard to stay focused on the goal.”
Fortunately, a wide range of strategies can help you get through the tough times without being overwhelmed by stress. Here are 10 ways to reduce stress while you quit smoking.
1. Cut yourself plenty of slack.
Don’t be hard on yourself while you’re quitting. Kicking the habit is tough enough. Recognize in advance that you’ll experience stress. Understand that your temper may be short and that you may feel discouraged and even depressed. Try not to be critical of yourself or others. Remember: quitting is your most important goal. Try to have an optimistic, “can-do” attitude. “Optimism turns out to be one of the most important determinants of success,” says Rabin. “If people are convinced they can do it, they stand a much better chance of succeeding. If you’ve tried and failed before, don’t let that discourage you. Most smokers have to try several times before they succeed.
2. Resolve short-term problems in advance.
If you can easily resolve any nagging short-term stresses, do it before you quit. Fix that leaky faucet. Clean up the clutter that’s been bugging you. Clear away as many stressful issues as possible.
3. Set long-term worries aside for now.
The first few weeks of quitting are the hardest. During that period, don’t burden yourself unnecessarily by worrying about long-term problems. Make a deal with yourself that you’ll worry about them later, after you’ve made it through the first few weeks. Focus on the here and now.
4. Learn to recognize signs of stress.
The sooner you deal with stress, the less likely it will be to derail your efforts to quit. Signs of stress include a feeling of being overwhelmed and unable to cope, anxiety, restlessness, headaches, sleeplessness, depression, agitation, and anger. As soon as you feel yourself under stress, act fast.
5. Do things you enjoy doing.
One of the simplest ways to ease stress is to distract yourself with activities that give you pleasure. Listen to a favorite recording. Watch a comedy movie. Take the dog out for a run. Play with your kids. Enjoy a warm shower. Luxuriate in the bathtub. Beyond helping you let off steam, life’s simple pleasures can remind you of why you want to quit in the first place, strengthening your resolve to stick with it.
6. Get moving.
Many studies show that physical activity can help ease stress and anxiety. Exercise even appears to boost brain chemicals associated with feelings of well-being. “Antidepressants help only about half of people with mild to moderate depression. Physical activity, on the other hand, eases depression in about 80% of people,” says Rabin. Almost any kind of activity helps. But doing something you really enjoy, such as swimming or walking in a beautiful area, may be especially helpful for easing stress.
7. Practice relaxation.
Stress reduction techniques also help many smokers quit. These include yoga, progressive relaxation, guided imagery, deep breathing exercises, and various forms of meditation. Mindfulness meditation, which encourages focusing on the here and now, has also been shown to help smokers kick the habit. No one technique works for everyone, so it’s worth trying out a few in advance. If possible, get comfortable with a few stress-reduction techniques before your quit date.
8. Put it in writing.
“Writing about something that’s bothering you -- whether it’s a long-time worry or something that happened yesterday -- can be a powerful way to ease stress,” says Rabin. His advice: Find a quiet place and spend 15 minutes writing about what’s nagging at you. Don’t reread or revise. Just write. Afterward, tear up what you’ve written and toss it away. “Just the act of writing can be enormously helpful in sorting out how you feel and putting stresses into perspective,” says Rabin.
9. Call on a friend.
Being with other people helps relieve stress. Before you quit, make a list of the people you can turn to for support and a friendly conversation. Turn to them when you’re beginning to feel stressed. “Social support turns out to be one of the most important determinants of success for smokers trying to quit,” says Scott McIntosh, PhD, associate professor of community and preventive medicine at the University of Rochester in New York and director of the Greater Rochester Area Tobacco Cessation Center.
10. Be patient.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed during the first few days of quitting. Almost all ex-smokers experience moments when they doubt their resolve. Remind yourself frequently: The effects of nicotine withdrawal get weaker every day that you don’t smoke. Every time you resist lighting up, you’re one step closer to a smoke-free life. Even when you’re over the hardest first few weeks, expect to hit some rough patches. “It takes about six months for remodeling in the brain to change behavior and make it second nature,” says Rabin. But once that occurs, you’ll be comfortable in your new life as a nonsmoker -- and happier and healthier for it.