Edited by Grimm, Inukshuk, Eng
This guide is part of our series of articles on improving and maintaining your health and wellness.
Understanding How to Manage Cravings When you Quit
The hardest part of quitting smoking is managing the debilitating cravings.
Nicotine addiction is much more than just a physical addiction. In fact, the purely physical aspect of addiction passes in about three days, and the body quickly adjusts to not having nicotine in the system. Unfortunately, it's the brain that's in control of things, and the mental addition can last years. This is because of how nicotine works in the body, and what the brain does when it receives a dose.
You see, each time you smoke a cigarette, you're reinforcing the brain's dependence on nicotine.1 When that dependence is reinforced, the brain strengthens the neural networks that support this addiction. 2 Then, when you try to stop smoking, these networks flex their muscles and make you physically uncomfortable. This discomfort, while rarely lasting more than ten minutes at the most intense levels, can quite literally force you to smoke a cigarette.
Think of your brain like a bouncer in your own special smoker's club. The first time you walk into the club and light up a cigarette, the bouncer is pretty small, and you can easily overpower him. However, every day you stay in that club smoking, your bouncer is lifting weights and learning how to fight. You might even feel good, but that feeling only lasts as long as you stay in the club. As soon as you put down your cigarette and try to leave, the bouncer stops you. If you get creative, and try to quit smoking by sneaking away when the bouncer isn't looking, he'll chase you down, and do his best to drag you back to the smoking club.
This is the power of cravings. However, like all things with your body, cravings operate on a combination of schedules and triggers. Just like a healthy body expects to eat three times or more a day on a schedule, you also need a nicotine fix at least a few times a day. If you don't get that fix, the cravings show up and do their work of forcing you to have a cigarette, or experience extreme discomfort (remember the example of our bouncer, and consider that after years of smoking, he's probably the Incredible Nicotine Hulk).
The trick here is that the longer you stay away from the 'smoking club' we discussed earlier, the weaker the bouncer becomes, until he's a frail pushover you can completely ignore. So, all you need to do is stay away long enough for him to be too weak to chase you anymore, and your cravings will go away completely, other than the occasional pitiful whine you might hear every month or three. To do this, you need to identify your smoking triggers, and plan for how to handle your cravings.
Learning Smoking Triggers and Managing Cravings
Knowing what will trigger a craving can help you avoid some of the most common triggers, making it easier to quit smoking and ditch the nicotine addiction.
Smoking triggers are things like seeing someone else smoke in a movie, feeling stressed, or drinking alcohol. These are all triggers, because they're signs to your mind that it's time to smoke again. Because of this, you can avoid having your brain think about smoking by avoiding triggers. Obviously you won't be able to avoid them all, but you can avoid many of them. The more you avoid and resist, the less powerful they'll be, until you can experience triggers without wanting or needing to have a cigarette.
Triggers usually only last from three to ten minutes, which means you won't need long to overcome them. By managing the situations you're in when you'll be exposed to cravings, you can better combat them.
Here's a list of the 16 most common smoking triggers. If you'd like to add your own, let us know in the comments, or in a question, and we'll update the list.
- 1Any time you see someone else smoke, your mind will immediately think of all the pleasure you'd be experiencing if you smoked. Because of this, it's best to try and avoid places you'll see others smoking.Seeing another person smoke.
- 2For many people, waking up to coffee and a cigarette is part of their morning ritual. To break this, try to switch things up, and have a class of cold juice and a piece of fruit, instead of a hot drink.Drinking a cup of coffee.
- 3Any time you take a break from something you've been working on, your mind immediately shifts focus to the next thing it could or should be doing. If you're a smoker, the first thing you'll think of is smoking a cigarette. Structuring work in a manner that prevents you from being able to take smoking breaks can help combat this.Taking breaks from a work project.
- 4For most of us, drinking and smoking go hand in hand. This is partially because bars are traditionally smoke filled environments, but it's also because when we drink, we also tend to be sitting or standing around doing nothing. To combat this, try not to drink at all for the first month you quit smoking. If you must drink, try to find a bar that is smoke free. Don't forget the golden rule of never drinking alone too, or you'll end up smoking and making excuses for it.Drinking Beer or Alcohol.
- 5Even if you don't plan to smoke, a lunch break taken in a pub or bar can trigger smoking cravings. Instead of visiting a bar for lunch, try to visit a family friendly restaurant where smoking isn't allowed, and you'll better be able to resist any unexpected cravings.Visiting a bar.
- 6Many people like to have a cigarette after they finish eating. This is especially true of big meals that completely fill you. Instead of having a big meal, try to exercise portion control, eat slowly, and have several small dishes, instead of one big meal.Finishing a big meal.
- 7Any time you get stressed out, smoking cravings can flare up. Avoiding stress is the best way to skip this smoking trigger, but it's not always practical - especially if you work in a stressful environment. To combat this, consider taking a week off work when you first start quitting smoking. It will make things much easier.Experiencing stress.
- 8If you talk on the phone a lot, you probably also take that time to have one or more cigarettes. Try to avoid talking on the phone when you first start quitting, and you'll have an easier time avoiding this common smoking trigger.Chatting on the phone.
- 9Many people choose to smoke when they are driving. This can make it difficult to avoid this common trigger, especially because operating a motor vehicle takes concentration. To combat this, try taking the bus, a taxi, or another form of public transportation, like the metro. The money you save on cigarettes should help offset the cost.Driving or operating a motor vehicle.
- 10If you have a case of the blues, or real depression, then you'll most likely want to smoke to feel better. The best way to combat this is through counseling, either over the phone or in person.Feeling down or depressed.
- 11Any time we're lonely, we want to do something that makes us feel less alone. Having a cigarette can bring back memories of being with people. It can make us feel like we're part of something, rather than being all alone. A great way to combat this is by going to the gym, where you can use the help of a personal trainer. You'll get some exercise, and you'll be around people who aren't smoking. That's a winning combination that's sure to make you feel better.Being lonely.
- 12Marketing has cigarettes all over the place on TV and in the movies. You can't watch one without seeing someone smoke, and when you see someone smoke, it will trigger your own desire to have a cigarette. If possible, try to avoid television and movies for the first month you quit smoking.Watching a movie or TV.
- 13Many smokers like to have a cigarette after they are intimate with their partner. Since this is a particularly difficult time to combat the craving to smoke, you should consider preparing in advance. Make a fruit plate, or other healthy snack, and then feed each other afterwards. This will continue your intimacy, and help to distract you from the desire to smoke.Intimate relationship moments and sex.
- 14Sometimes we can't avoid arguments, and unfortunately, many times an argument or fight makes us feel hurt, and a little self-destructive. In such situations it's easy to justify having a cigarette, and even blame the person we argued with for giving in to the need to smoke. This is an especially difficult trigger to avoid, because our neural networks only weaken when we combat the specific trigger. That means that when we avoid arguing, we also avoid weakening this trigger. To combat this, it's best to practice fighting by engaging in debates. You can do this either by joining a debate club, or engaging friends and associates in a discussion. You're not actually fighting, so it's easier to maintain your control and combat any cravings. Having a counselor on call, or even debating with your counselor can help with this.Arguments and fighting.
- 15Another common smoking trigger is gambling. Whether it's in a casino, or just playing a game of cards with friends and penny stakes, this one can be difficult to resist. The best way to avoid it is to avoid card games and casinos for the first month or two you quit smoking.Gambling.
- 16If you smoke in the home, or you visit someone else who smokes, the smell can trigger an intense craving. Avoid going anywhere you'll be likely to smell smoke, and try to keep a healthy snack on hand that will occupy your mouth and hands for those times when it's unavoidable.Smelling smoke.
- Remember that everyone is different. You may have your own unique triggers, which only you're aware of. Think about it, and make your own list to add to those above, so that you'll know what to avoid.
Tips and Suggestions to Help Manage Smoking Cravings
- Plan an alternate activity. If you don't have time for an alternate activity, then try something quick, like running up the stairs.
- Keep a journal of your cravings, and time them. This is most easily done with a smartphone, but you can also do it with a notepad. By keeping a journal, you'll be able to see how short your cravings are, and better track them over time, keeping a record of success.
- Track the money you save each day on cigarettes. For many people, this extra money can quickly add up. In places like New York, where a pack of cigarettes can cost $10 or more, a heavy smoker can easily save $1,000 a month.
- Keep your counselor on speed dial, and don't be afraid to call him or her. If you find yourself in a pinch, you can also call free hotlines, like the Smoke Free hotline, at 1-877-44U-QUIT. They provide free professional counseling over the phone.
Article Citations and References for Managing Cravings
The following articles, government sites, and medical journals were used in this guide.
- 1Imaging Studies Elucidate Neurobiology of Cigarette CravingDrug Abuse:
- American Cancer Society
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Drug Abuse (NIH)
- Healthy Canadians
- Kids Health
- National Cancer Institute
- National Health Service (NHS)
- National Institutes of Health (NIH)
- Queen Victoria Quit Org
- Smoke Free