UNC Health Care

9 Strategies for Quitting Smoking

The decision to quit smoking is one of the most important choices you’ll ever make. It can save your life—and that is especially important right now given that people who smoke are at a higher risk for complications from COVID-19. However, we recognize that quitting isn’t easy, and that is why we wanted to provide some encouragement by sharing some helpful tips.

“There are a number of different reasons why it’s hard to quit,” says Susan Trout, associate director of the UNC Tobacco Treatment Program. “There are so many components that overlap that it becomes really important to address all of those aspects when you’re trying to become tobacco-free because they all play a role.”

First, nicotine is addictive.

“Tobacco products are designed to get the nicotine to the brain quickly, making them very addictive,” Trout says. “So when somebody stops using tobacco, they often have nicotine withdrawal symptoms, such as increased irritability, nicotine cravings, difficulty concentrating, headaches and potentially an increase in anxiety and/or depression.”

Second, there’s a psychological component of smoking.

Trout says.  “Tobacco use becomes very connected with things in their life, so there can be multiple triggers to use it throughout the day.”

For example, some people may smoke to relieve stress.

“When they get stressed or they get anxious, then they want to smoke,” Trout says. “When they quit, it is important to find healthy new ways to deal with stress and/or anxiety.”

Smoking can become connected with different parts of daily living. For example, having a cigarette after a meal or when driving can become almost automatic over time.

“So they’ve got this pattern of usage that they’re also dealing with,” Trout says. “And they have to find a way to change that routine.”

Finally, there can be a social component to smoking.

“It can be very connected with their social network, whether it’s people in their family, friends or colleagues they work with,” Trout says. “If they quit, then they have to think about how to address that piece too.”

Although quitting is hard, it’s not impossible—especially with the help of others. In fact, since 2002 there have been more former smokers than current smokers.

Here are nine tips for strategies for quitting smoking.

1. Get help.

Only about 5 percent of people who quit become tobacco-free without help.

“We really encourage people not to go at it alone,” Trout says. “There’s so many different ways of getting support now.”

Every state has a tobacco quitline, which is a telephone-based tobacco cessation service available at no cost in every state. Some local health departments and hospitals offer smoking cessation programs. There are even apps and texting programs to help you quit smoking now.

2. Talk to your doctor.

Talk to your doctor or tobacco treatment counselor about medications that can lessen nicotine cravings.

“There are seven FDA-approved tobacco cessation medications,” Trout says.

These include nicotine replacement therapies, as well as non-nicotine medication; medications help to reduce the nicotine withdrawal symptoms you may experience when you abruptly stop tobacco use.

“Tobacco cessation medications can help reduce nicotine withdrawal symptoms. While you may still have some cravings or feel a little bit more irritable, if we can minimize that, it allows you to focus on the other aspects,” Trout says.

3. Have a plan to address triggers.

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. If you know you reach for a cigarette when you get stressed, think about others healthy ways to calm yourself.

“Identify your triggers and come up with strategies for how to deal with them,” Trout says.

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 yoga or meditation. Or you can use your newfound lung capacity to take up a new exercise routine.

Counseling also can help. For example, you may try cognitive behavior therapy, which is talk therapy guided by a trained therapist and designed to help you change thinking and behavior patterns.

4. Eat a healthy snack or chew gum.

Your addiction to tobacco can feel 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 your brain 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 carrots or celery sticks, a handful of nuts or sunflower seeds. Best to keep the snack on the healthy side.

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.

5. 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.

Find something else to hold instead. Work on a puzzle or play a game. Or bring a hard rubber ball to squeeze at work. If you’ve thought about taking up a hobby such as knitting or woodworking, now is the time.

6. 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, 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 try something a bit more old-fashioned such as writing a letter to a friend or loved one. 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.

7. 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 go for 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.

8. 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 are excited about your new smoke-free lifestyle.

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.

9. 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.


Need help to quit smoking? Talk to your doctor or contact the UNC Health Tobacco Treatment Program at (984) 974-4976.