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Nicotine is a helluva drug. Those of us who have been under its spell know what it's like to be a slave serving an unrelenting master. It's a vicious cycle: One cigarette begets the next. Amidst the cluster that was 2020, I was able to emancipate myself from my nearly 20-year nicotine addiction. If I can do it, you can too! Here's how to put this bad habit to bed and quit smoking cigarettes for good.
Okay, I'm not seriously suggesting you break bones on purpose, but falling off our zipline out back and breaking a few metatarsals served as the catalyst for my quit journey. Of course, I had "wanted" to quit smoking for years, but addiction doesn't really care what you want. My husband and I were talking about starting a family, so it was time to get serious about stopping smoking.
I didn't know it in early 2020, but just like most of the crappy things that happen to us humans, breaking my left foot was a blessing in disguise. Hobbling around on crutches was a great excuse to stop carting myself outside to smoke 20 times a day. Now, I realize not everyone will have this "advantage". All of the quit books say to pick a date and let everyone know that you plan on giving up cigarettes on that day.
It's never going to feel like the right time to quit smoking cigarettes, so any day will do. However, it is best to quit on a weekend when you can stay in bed for two days straight—more on this strategy soon.
It's a good idea to tell people when you plan on quitting smoking, not just so they can cheer you on, but also so they can steer clear of your grumpy ass. When I quit smoking it felt like I was one big raw nerve, susceptible to anything and everything (and everyone). In fact, if you can arrange to be alone for a few days, even if you have to rent an Airbnb or sequester yourself in a guest room, that's probably best for you and your loved ones. This brings me to my next point, cultivating your surroundings.
Just like a plant that needs certain soil and light to grow, your environment matters. As Freud wrote back in 1895, its "not so much in the removal of what is pathological as the establishment of conditions that are more likely to lead the course of the process in the direction of recovery."
Create fertile ground for freedom from nicotine by setting yourself up for success in every way possible. My quit haven was my bed with a stack of books piled up next to me. For three days, if I wasn't snoozing, I was reading. It's also a good idea to make this haven trigger-free.
Booze and cigarettes are best friends, so I had to quit drinking alcohol before I could even contemplate quitting smoking. This Naked Mind by Annie Grace really helped me lay off the booze (for good, as it turned out). I also used to light up every time I got behind the wheel, so I took at least a couple of weeks off of driving. Again, I know that's not possible for everyone, but the idea is to give yourself as much room for success as possible.
My morning orange juice made me crave its companion cigarette, so I stopped starting my day with that shot of sugar. Caffeine, especially coffee, can have the same effect, so you may want to take some time away from java. Even scrolling through your phone may be a trigger. Identify your triggers by recording each cig you smoke a day, then try to avoid those triggers. The post-meal smoke was my hardest craving to face, so I started substituting a tangerine instead. I ate a lot of tangerines. Better than smoking, right?
It takes one to three days for nicotine to leave your system completely after you stop using tobacco. While you wait out the withdrawals, keep your hands and mouth busy. For me, tangerines were the answer. I could peel them with my hands, smell their fresh, not smoky scent, and mimic the hand-to-mouth motion of smoking as I ate my healthy snack. I probably had four a day.
When I thought I'd probably OD'ed vitamin C and was about to turn into a tangerine, I literally sat on my hands. It may seem crazy, but that's what helped me. Whether it's coloring, crafting, or knitting, think of a way to keep your hands busy that isn't snacking on junk food.
Okay, I realize I just advised you to steer clear of junk food, but you have to have some kind of treat, right? When I quit smoking, I became addicted to sugar instead. Trading one addiction in for another is probably not how the experts would tell you to do it, but my brain needed some kind of reward for being "good" and gummy bears, ice cream, and Cokes served that purpose. If you become addicted to sugar after taking my advice, see our article on How to Quit or Lessen Your Sugar Intake.
Huge eye roll for "taking it one day at a time," right? I mean, what other choice do we have? However, this advice will help see you through those first few days of withdrawals. One day at a time is too much. All you have to do is make it through this moment without lighting up, then the next, and the next. Just focus on the moment at hand.
Speaking of being mindful in the moment, urge surfing can really help get you through those craving attacks. Instead of trying to ignore or tamper down your craving (which, hello, doesn't work), acknowledge the craving and ride it out. Cravings can't last forever—they will go away eventually. Here is an audio recording you can download and play whenever needed.
No, I am not going to harp on how you should picture your smoke-free life: How you'll smell better, be healthier, yadda yadda yadda. Visualization may help, but that's not what I mean about being positive. What I do mean is that our brains don't compute negatives. I'll prove it right now. Do NOT think of a pink elephant.
How'd that go? That's what I thought.
Instead of telling your brain "no" or "stop," it is better to acknowledge your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and desires, and let them go. In the video above, mediation expert, former monk, and Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe explains how to not get too attached to our thoughts.
There's a difference between self-discipline and self-flagellation. Beating yourself up when you mess up won't help anything. A slip doesn’t make you a failure or mean you're relapsing.
Think about it. When has negative mental chatter ever made you feel better? Be kind to yourself. Treat yourself like you would a friend who is going through the same thing. If your friend was trying to quit smoking and slipped up and had a cigarette, would you tell them they are so stupid and will never be able to reach their goal? I didn't think so.
I know I said don't be hard on yourself but man, we had to be pretty dumb to start this habit to begin with, right? I started smoking to take a break. Literally, I worked at a grocery store in high school and you only got breaks if you smoked. Identify the reason you started smoking and come up with ideas to serve that same purpose. Now when I need a break, I practice deep breathing instead. In fact, I'm now convinced that deep breathing is the key to life.
We already know how bad smoking is for us. Scare tactics and reality checks about the health hazards of smoking don't really do any good. I didn't download any of those apps that are like "in six months you'll be less likely to die of a heart attack" or whatever. Who cares when my heart rate returns to normal? I put smokefree.gov in that same category of, "Thanks, but no thanks. I can do this on my own, don't need a stupid government website to tell me what to do, etc."
But what harm could it do? I did end up signing up for texts from smokefree.gov, and those stupid things actually helped! You start by giving them some info, like your gender, how much you currently smoke, and your quit date simply by replying to questions via text. Then they advise you to do all your laundry and get the smoky smell out of your clothes, to come up with a plan for dealing with triggers, and get rid of your ashtrays, lighters, and any other smoking paraphernalia. As you can see above, I took full advantage of the "mood" tips. Text CDC to 47848 to sign up for these helpful tips. It made me feel like I wasn't alone on this treacherous journey and that I had a companion who knew what I was going through.
A lot of the advice out there says to toss out your pack of cigarettes so you're there's no temptation to light up. That makes me wonder whether any of these advice-givers were actually ever smokers. No one knows the panic and anxiety that sets in when a smoker runs out of cigarettes. I can't tell you how many times I tried to quit when I ran out of cigarettes and ended up giving up, having a meltdown, and driving to the gas station for more smokes. I found that keeping a pack in my junk drawer was kind of like a security blanket. Cigarettes are always going to be available. For me, it was nice to know that I could have one if I wanted to.
One of the scariest things about quitting to me was gaining weight. Convinced that smoking was keeping me at a healthy weight, I was worried that if I quit, I would substitute tortilla chips for cigarettes and gain 30 pounds. Boy was I wrong. Not only did I not pack on any pounds, I actually lost some weight. Because I quit drinking to quit smoking, I was skipping a ton of liquid calories. And as you know, my crutch became tangerines, not starchy, carb-filled tortilla chips.
My new year's resolution last year was to start a daily yoga practice. The combination of not drinking and exercising every day put me in the best shape of my life! If yoga's not your jam, find another way to move your body daily.
As I approach my first anniversary of being a non-smoker, I could still really go for a cigarette. It may always be that way, but I'm so proud and happy that I quit—not to mention rich—hello five bucks a day back in my pocket! I wish you well on your path to quitting smoking cigarettes and truly hope that these tips help you on your way. Just think, soon you'll be smoke-free!