It’s a familiar story. A group of friends are out at a bar, blowing off steam after a busy week. One or two people step outside for a cigarette. A non-smoker joins them, just to keep up with the conversation and to avoid being the only one left at the table. Outside, the smokers light up, and out of casual kindness, someone offers the non-smoker a cigarette. He accepts. Why not? It’s just one cigarette with drinks.
This is how I started smoking — just in social situations. Several friends I’d met in my graduate school program were regular smokers, and though they never pressured me, they always offered me a cigarette when they’d smoke. As I began accepting their offers more often, I decided it wasn’t such a big deal as long as I wasn’t buying my own packs. Soon, this was happening so regularly, I would be the one to ask if everyone wanted to go outside.
Though my friends were always happy to share, I eventually broke down and bought my own pack. Having sampled a variety of choices, I had a good idea what I wanted to smoke all the time. And that’s exactly what I did. Bit by bit, my habit progressed beyond social smoking. I’d have a cigarette first thing in the morning and when I got home from classes in the evening. Then I started smoking after meals. Then I found excuses to smoke throughout the day, whenever I had a few minutes free.
I was buying packs more regularly, and to save on costs, I even started investing in pouches of loose tobacco and to roll my own cigarettes. The more I smoked, the less I felt that initial buzz that made smoking fun. So I smoked more to try and reach that feeling again. I was up at night coughing, my throat hurt, I felt sick to my stomach, and I always smelled like smoke. Eventually, part of me was certain I didn’t want to keep smoking, but at this point it was just something I did. It was part of my everyday routine, as deeply ingrained as sleeping and eating.
I smoked regularly like this for three years. I know that is a short time compared to some people, but smoking had a serious hold on me. Though it took a lot of time, willpower, and patience from people around me, I have managed to stop smoking. Here are some strategies that helped me to break the habit and move on with my life.
Understand Your Reasons for Quitting
If you aren’t clear about your reasons for quitting, you may find it more difficult to avoid giving in to temptation once the cravings start. Because of this, understanding why you want to quit smoking may be the most important part of the process. It helped me to list every reason I could think of, including both common reasons people quit as well as very personal reasons.
Here are some examples from my list:
- I don’t want to smell like smoke and ashes all the time.
- Smoking makes me feel sick and cough.
- Smoking will stain my teeth.
- Smoking can cause cancer and other diseases.
- I like to sing, and smoking can take that away from me.
It seems the most obvious reason for quitting should be the fact that smoking contributes to a number of diseases that could kill me. However, somehow that fear wasn’t the most compelling reason for me. The fact that coughing so much made it difficult or impossible to sing was having an immediate impact on something I’ve spent my whole life working toward. So every time I smoked or thought about smoking, I would imagine losing my voice and never being able to sing again. That helped me stay strong when the cravings set in.
You may have an entirely different set of reasons. Just remember it’s important to find something that truly matters to you and remind yourself what it is that motivates you to quit smoking. It may be helpful to carry your list of reasons around with you or post it somewhere you’ll see it often throughout the day.
List Your Triggers
Especially at the beginning of the process, it’s a good idea to list the situations that cause you to reach for a cigarette. Drinking at the bar where I first started smoking was a particularly big trigger for me. In my mind, I had romanticized the idea of standing outside after a few drinks to have a smoke. For a while, I avoided the bar. When I eventually went back, I made a point not to linger outside for too long where I knew people usually stood around smoking. And I didn’t go outside with my friends who still smoked.
It’s likely you’ll have triggers that you can’t simply avoid, like anxiety, or craving a cigarette after meals. However, it’s important to acknowledge these triggers, if only to be aware of when you might be the most at risk for turning back to cigarettes. As with other substance addictions like drugs and alcohol, as you attempt to quit smoking and remain smoke free, you should continue to pay attention to the specific situations that could trigger a relapse for you.
Replace the Habit
Simply quitting isn’t necessarily the best strategy for success. We pick up habits like smoking when we’re bored, stressed, or for a number of other reasons. Just stopping without replacing the habit can leave a void in the way you interact with the world, which might leave you open to a relapse. So, while it’s important to know your reasons for quitting, it’s also important to acknowledge what you like about smoking and find other ways to achieve that.
Though I started smoking for social reasons, I eventually noticed I was reaching for cigarettes when I was stressed. Brisk walks helped me to burn off nervous energy and take my mind off of smoking. Even if I only had a few minutes free, I would walk up and down the hill beside my apartment or around the buildings at school. When walking wasn’t possible, taking slow deep breaths and counting them up to ten also helped me to take my mind off of cigarettes.
I also noticed in the first few weeks after quitting that I had a lot of trouble falling asleep. I’d lie awake in bed for hours every night, sometimes all night. This didn’t make life any easier during the day, when I was trying not to think about smoking. Aside from my body adjusting to the chemical changes of going without nicotine, I also missed that last cigarette before bed. It felt like something I needed to do. Instead of smoking, I tried a few natural strategies to combat insomnia like walking around my room to shake off the anxiety and drinking chamomile tea. Eventually, sipping hot decaffeinated tea before bed became part of my set routine and helped alleviate the need for the physical act of smoking before bed.
There were still moments when I seemed to be missing something, and I found myself fidgeting and reaching for cigarettes that weren’t there. On several occasions, I started walking toward the convenience store to buy another pack. Eventually, in those moments, I found that vaping helped me to replace the physical act of smoking. At first, it felt like cheating to have something so close to the sensation of smoking. However, the vape juice I used didn’t contain nicotine, and I felt better knowing I wasn’t breathing in harmful smoke and toxins. Also, vaping didn’t make me cough like cigarettes, so I didn’t have the same fear of losing my voice.
Avoid the “Occasional” Cigarette Myth
Some people manage to smoke on the weekends or just when they drink, and it doesn’t spill over into the rest of their lives. They may do this for years without feeling the need to smoke more often. I know that I am not one of these people. When I first tried to quit smoking, I only made it to the weekend before a friend offered me a cigarette, and I accepted. Then I went out and bought another pack which set me back a few days. It was so easy to fall back into the habit, and without a thought, I was ready to buy the next pack, and the next.
It may be impossible to completely remove temptation. I still have friends who smoke, and even seeing coworkers smoking around my office building makes me long for a cigarette. For some reason, the colder months of the year are particularly triggering for me. Yet I know I can’t give in. Because I’ve failed to quit before, I know it’s not possible to have even one cigarette without becoming a full on smoker again.
Reverse the Damage of Smoking
Most people start smoking and continue the habit knowing that cigarettes are harmful to their health. Fortunately, most of the ill effects can be reversed, and recognizing these positive changes may help you to stay away from cigarettes. One of the first things to go will be the constant smell of smoke, which will be a relief to you as well as the people around you. You’ll also notice the smoker’s cough will fade, and your lung function will improve. Eventually, your blood pressure will return to normal, reducing your chance of heart attack or stroke.
Although many physical effects of smoking will fade over time, smoking for any amount of time puts you at risk for certain conditions like lung cancer to develop later on. If you’ve been smoking for many years, it may be a good idea to consider going through an early detection screening for lung cancer. Unfortunately, by the time symptoms show up, the disease will have already progressed significantly and may be incurable. By discovering cancer in its early stages, you stand a better chance of successfully treating the disease. Screenings can be especially effective for people who are 55 to 74 years old who currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.
Quitting smoking is one of the most difficult things you’ll ever do. It may take weeks or months for your body to adjust to the lack of nicotine and the physical act of smoking, and beyond the hardest stages of quitting, staying smoke free is a lifelong battle. The cravings may never fully go away, but if you find alternative ways to cope with your desire to smoke and remind yourself why you no longer want to be a smoker, you can take better care of your body and move on with your life.