Recognizing your Smoking Cues

Blog Post created by dr_hays on Mar 16, 2016

A respected body of scientific literature exists describing what scientists call “cue reactivity.”  Using a brain imaging technique called functional MRI, specific areas of the brain have been identified that react to smoking-related cues in your environment. These cues are the things you run into every day that make you think of lighting up.   Interestingly, they actually “trip a switch” in your brain that evokes the craving to smoke.  You and I know these cues more commonly as “triggers.”


Triggers can be very personal. Some common ones include: seeing a cigarette or someone smoking, seeing an ashtray, hearing the flick of a lighter, smelling tobacco smoke, drinking coffee, seeing, having an alcoholic drink, or just being in a room or place where you normally smoke. Scientists are now beginning to understand through research what many smokers have known: increased exposure to smoking cues when a person is trying to quit can make staying smoke-free even harder!



When you are exposed to smoking triggers, these specific areas of your brain go into overdrive and can overwhelm your intentions to not smoke. This research translates into what might be some good advice that can make it a little easier to quit:


*       Identify your triggers:

Are there things in you daily routine or in your environment that trigger you to smoke? Try to pay attention to what these are.  The better you know your triggers, the more planning you can do to limit your exposure when first quitting.  Not sure what your triggers are?  Then it may be helpful to…


*       Track your triggers:

On a slip of paper tucked into your pack of cigarettes, in a small notebook, or on your smartphone, jot down a trigger when you notice it. What time was it? Who were you with? What kind of mood were you in? Did you decide to smoke, or did you pass?  Within a few short days, you’ll likely have a good idea of the situations that evoke the cue to smoke.


You are the expert on you.  Use this knowledge to plan your next quit.  Consider what changes you might make to your routine and environment to limit your exposure to smoking cues.  While some situations may be unavoidable, taking a little time to plan for those you can avoid can make a big difference in helping you to stay smoke-free.




Conklin, C. A., Vella, E. J., Joyce, C. J., Salkeld, R. P., Perkins, K. A., & Parzynski, C. (2015). Examining the relationship between cue-induced craving and actual smoking. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 23(2), 90–96. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0038826