Quitting smoking is a process that typically includes a few different challenges. Each challenge can be effectively met with a combination of cognitive (how you think), behavioral (what you do), and pharmacologic (medicines) strategies, if you understand what you’re going through and have a plan.
The experience of quitting smoking can be difficult and also emotional, because of nicotine withdrawal symptoms. Certain areas of the brain have come to rely on a steady supply of nicotine to function normally, and when a person quits tobacco, that supply is cut off. Withdrawal symptoms can be very uncomfortable, and can include feelings of anger, anxiety, irritability, difficulty concentrating, hunger, impatience, nervousness and restlessness. It varies from person to person, but these symptoms tend to improve after the first 3-4 weeks tobacco-free. It is typical for withdrawal symptoms to cause relapse to tobacco use in these first weeks, so cessation medications can be especially important early in the process of quitting and can double your chances of success (2008 US Public Health Services Guidelines).
Different from withdrawal symptoms, urges and cravings can come up for several months after you quit. The same areas of the brain that miss nicotine when you quit tobacco are hypersensitive to “cues” from your environment that remind you of smoking. These cues are very unique to individual people, but can often include drinking coffee or alcohol, taking a break from your work or finishing a task, driving in the car, arguments with others, or simply getting up in the morning. When you are exposed to these cues, your brain can actually send you strong messages to smoke.
Trying out different strategies to respond to these urges both in how you think and in what you do is important. An urge typically lasts only a few minutes – whether you smoke or not – so reminding yourself (“this will pass”) and giving yourself strong positive messages (“I can DO this!”) should help. Changing your routines to avoid smoking cues, such as buying your coffee at a drive-thru on the way to work instead of making it at home or paying at the gas pump instead of going inside can help you set up an environment that supports your decision to not smoke.
Quitting smoking is a process, and it often involves a few bumps at first as you experiment with what works for you. Don’t give up! Talk to someone who supports your efforts, seeking support from a health professional, and filling your “quit smoking toolbox” with cognitive and behavioral strategies will help prepare you for a smoke-free future.