Why Is It So Hard To Quit Smoking?

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About 70% of smokers say they would like to quit. Half of those try it every year. And of that 40% who try to quit, only about 7% actually stay smoke free. Almost all of those who try to quit go right back to it within a week. When asked, people who have experienced multiple addictions say that smoking is harder to kick than heroin or cocaine. So what makes it so hard?

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False expectations

Quitting is easy. Staying quit isn’t. Anyone who has smoked for awhile has had to do without for some period of time. Perhaps a job prevents smoking during working hours or a hospital stay keeps them from lighting up. For heavy smokers, it can be as common as going to the movies – a few hours without a cigarette. So we know about quitting, at least the initial urge that comes from not having a cigarette for awhile. Our bodies know it too – every night, during an eight hour sleep, our bodies clear out the nicotine without too much problem.

These experiences set us up for false expectations about what really quitting will be like. We think it’s a simple matter of will power and resolve. And then, when the attempt is actually made, we find out differently. It’s fine for a few hours. Then the cravings kick in. Suddenly, all we can think about is having a smoke. We get irritable – mad at ourselves for being weak and mad at cigarettes for having this control over us.

Soon, we are making deals. Instead of quitting completely, maybe it would be better to just cut down. And then, without really meaning to… we light up. And it’s pretty good. But what happened? We didn’t mean to start up again. Somehow, our addiction tricked us.

Without a clear understanding of what you are up against, you are almost certain to fail. Thinking it will be easy is wrong. Realistic expectations are helpful. It will be hard and it will take extended resolve. It may even take repeated practice – “Don’t quit quitting” is the phrase.

Relying on tools alone

Another way we fail is by thinking medications will do the whole job for us. “If only I follow this program or that one.” Again, this alone won’t do. It can be a part of the package, but just as the repeat dieter puts too much hope on a ‘magic pill’ and then regains all the weight, smokers need to understand it is a real addiction.

There are medications that will help reduce cravings. There are nicotine patches and gums that will help get you past the habit of lighting up. But there is no cure-all in a pill. Tools can help, but they aren’t magic.

The best success rate for quitting smoking

Just like with other addictions, the highest success rates come from combining techniques in a full assault. It starts with an admission of being hooked on cigarettes. If it takes a round of trying to quit cold turkey to see how powerful the addiction is, then that’s fine. As long as this first try is just a warm-up to the real thing.

The next step is education. Learning the ins and outs of nicotine addiction helps teach you what is happening and allows you to perceive some of the tricks addiction plays as just temporary tactics you can beat. Understanding triggers and how they push the habit to the forefront of consciousness is also important.

Along with education comes motivation. Actually making it hard to relapse is the goal. One type of motivation underutilized by new quitters is developing a support group. Telling all your friends and family about your impending quit date and what their encouragement means is critical. Motivation also comes by writing down your commitment and setting out the reasons you want to quit. Recording it on paper makes it more official, more doable.

Finally, once you decide on a quit date and have your support in place, you need a good strategy – will I use medications? Replacement therapy? What step by step plan of action will guide you when the going gets tough? And it will get tough.

You should know the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal and know they won’t last long – a few days. You should also know how quickly your taste for food will come back as well as less coughing and better lung function. Look for the positive signs as the stink starts to disappear and you aren’t married to buying more cigarettes. Be proud when you reach the one week mark; prouder at one month; celebrate a year free and a couple of thousand dollars richer.

photo by John Nyboer

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