The decision to quit smoking is one of the most important choices you’ll ever make. It literally can save your life. But it’s also the beginning of a long process.
It’s important to remember that only about 5 percent of people who quit become tobacco-free unassisted, says Laurel Sisler, LCSW, LCAS, CTTS, director of the UNC Nicotine Dependence Program at UNC Family Medicine. Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor about cessation medications, counseling and ways to reduce your physical withdrawal symptoms.
Sisler also recommends focusing on a future without tobacco, rather than the act of giving up cigarettes.
“Quitting focuses on what you want to stop doing, whereas there is so much to be excited about when it comes to living a tobacco-free life,” she says. “You’ve got to frame it for yourself in a positive way.”
However you quit, you will face plenty of moments when you start to get antsy and want to reach for a cigarette. When the urge hits, try these strategies to stay on track.
1. Eat a healthy snack or chew gum.
Your addiction to tobacco is so persistent that your brain feels like you should be doing something at those times of day when you’d normally reach for a cigarette.
So give it something to do.
A crunchy snack can be a great way to overcome those in-the-moment cravings, whether it’s munching on a few carrot or celery sticks, a handful of nuts or sunflower seeds.
If the craving is more persistent, try chewing sugar-free gum. Many former smokers report that spicy cinnamon gum can be especially effective in overcoming a craving.
Sometimes simply drinking a glass of water can be enough to let the craving pass. And it will pass—you just have to wait out the discomfort.
2. Find something to do with your hands.
Becoming tobacco-free can leave you fidgety. Hands that could once busy themselves by reaching for a cigarette now find themselves without anything to do.
And you know what they say about idle hands …
Find something else to hold instead. Maybe on the weekends, you spend your time working on a puzzle or game. Maybe you decide to bring a hard rubber ball to squeeze at work.
If you’ve thought about taking up a hobby like knitting or woodworking, now is the time. Take a class and see where your creativity takes you.
3. Connect with the people you love.
Odds are, the people in your life are excited about the healthy choice you’ve made to quit, and they want to support you in any way they can.
If the craving strikes, give a nearby friend or family member a hug.
Not near someone you can hug? Call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while and catch up. Tell them about the healthy choice you’ve made to quit smoking and all the reasons that you’ve decided to quit.
Or you could try something a bit more old-fashioned like writing a letter to a friend or relative. Your brain and hands will focus on something other than reaching for a cigarette, and you’ll be keeping in touch with the people in your life.
4. Find a healthy new habit.
Now that you aren’t filling your days with five-minute timeouts every hour or two, you’ll have a lot more time to do things that will make you healthy and happy.
Get outside and take a jog. If you’re not up for that, make it a long walk. Without cigarettes, you’ll have the breath to walk for longer. As your body begins to heal, you may also start to notice that your nose becomes more sensitive and that you’re able to pick up smells you haven’t noticed in quite a while.
And a bonus: The more time that passes since the moment you gave up cigarettes, the better equipped your lungs are to take the big breaths you need for exercise.
5. Minimize stress if you can.
Stress is often a big trigger for people who are trying to quit smoking, a situation made all the more difficult by the act of quitting itself being stressful sometimes.
Finding ways to limit that stress as much as possible is an important part of developing a successful quitting strategy.
Sometimes this can be as simple as leaving a stressful situation. Having a rough day at work? Instead of sneaking out for a cigarette, pop down to the coffee shop for a drink or snack, take a quick walk, or socialize with a co-worker who does not smoke.
Of course, it’s not always possible to leave a stressful situation, so developing a few strategies for keeping your stress level low can be helpful.
Start by taking a few deep breaths. This gives you a few seconds to gather yourself, and you can focus on how much deeper you can breathe now that cigarettes aren’t part of your life.
If you find that your stress is more persistent, try a yoga or meditation class. Or you can use your newfound lung capacity to take up a new exercise routine.
6. Think about why you quit.
There are plenty of good reasons to quit smoking, but it can be difficult to keep things in perspective when that craving hits. Try to remember the things that motivated you to quit in the first place.
Maybe it’s because you want to be around to watch your kids grow up, or so you can grow old with your significant other. Keep a picture around to remind you of the people in your life who are supporting you and couldn’t be more excited about your new smoke-free lifestyle.
Maybe it’s because you want to be healthier. Your body starts to repair itself as soon as you put out that last cigarette. The longer you stay tobacco-free, the more your risk of adverse health outcomes decreases. Remind yourself of how far you’ve come with this timeline from the American Cancer Society.
And remember that smoking isn’t just unhealthy—it’s also expensive.
Keep a jar and put a quarter in it every time you resist the urge to smoke, or a few dollars in every time you would have bought a pack of cigarettes. The money will pile up over time (you’ll be surprised how quickly), and it will be a visible reminder of how much you’re saving by not giving in.
7. Don’t give up if you have a setback.
It’s happened. You’ve given in to the urge and smoked a cigarette.
But this isn’t failure, just a setback. Becoming tobacco-free isn’t a decision you make once; it’s an ongoing process that you’re going to take one day at a time.
You may not always be successful resisting your urges, but it’s important that you keep trying. Research and anecdotal evidence show that most people who quit made several attempts before they were successful.
That means it’s never too late to try again.
When all your hard work finally pays off, just think of how good it will feel to know you’re tobacco-free.
Laurel Sisler, LCSW, LCAS, CTTS, is director of the UNC Nicotine Dependence Program and specializes in counseling focused on weight management and tobacco cessation.
Counseling and Food and Drug Administration-approved cessation medications can triple your chance of becoming tobacco-free. Learn more about UNC Family Medicine’s tobacco cessation program by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (984) 974-4976.