1. Get support
It is really important to know that you don’t have to give up smoking on your own. Many countries have a telephone support line or provide in-person stop smoking services; use them, they really help. Get your partner and friends on board, it feels great to have people cheering us on and celebrating our achievements. It’s motivating too: telling others we’re quitting helps us stay smoke free because we hate disappointing people we care about. If your partner or friends smoke ask if they’ll not smoke around you and not offer you cigarettes. Additionally, or alternatively, the internet has lots of places like reddit.com/r/stopsmoking or quitsmokingmessageboard.com that are full of people who have been through what you’re going through and who can give advice, provide inspiration, pat you on the back or simply offer a sympathetic ear. Lastly, don’t forget to ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice, they may be aware of resources specifically suited to your needs.
2. Anticipate challenges
There are probably going to be situations in which resisting the desire to smoke may prove particularly challenging. These could be times when you routinely smoke, when with particular people or when at certain events. Being aware of these situations in advance means we can come up with a plan for dealing with them. A particularly effective type of plan is an if/then or a when/then plan (called an ‘implementation intention’). For example you might create a plan that says: when I finish every meal then I’ll repeat the mantra: Not another puff, no matter what. Or: if I’m drinking alcohol and I see people going outside to smoke then I’ll find someone to talk to inside. The trick is to make the situation that triggers the implementation intention (the ‘if’ or ‘when’) as specific as possible and the ‘then’ part appropriate for staying smoke free in that situation. When we’ve got these plans remembered we don’t have to weigh up what to do, the cue to act is triggered automatically and unconsciously whenever the situation is encountered. Have a think about the particular situations that might prove challenging for you and come up with a specific when/then plan for each one (this page has some examples to get you going). They’re so simple it might not sound as if they work, but there is tons of evidence to say that they do.
3. Try an electronic cigarette
E-cigs (often called vapes) are great for banishing cravings as they provide a hit of nicotine and replicate many of the psychological aspects of smoking without the harmful things that come from tobacco. Exhaling a big cloud of vapour can be so satisfying you may not missing smoking at all. We don’t have enough evidence yet to say that e-cigs are harmless, but we can say with almost total confidence that they are less harmful than cigarettes; if only because it’s hard to think of anything more damaging to health than tobacco. Tobacco smoke contains over 7,000 chemicals, of which at least 250 are known to be harmful. Smoking causes tar to be formed in the lungs and mouth and the heat of the smoke damages the throat. E-cigs, by comparison, contain nicotine, flavourings, propylene glycol and/or glycerine, the last two of which are considered safe for human consumption. Nicotine is highly addictive, but not particularly harmful on its own. The vapour from e-cigs does not create tar and is not as hot as smoke. A major health body in the UK reviewed the evidence and declared e-cigs to be about 95% safer than smoking. However, please remember that because nicotine is highly addictive, and because of how closely e-cigs replicate smoking, there is a risk you could become dependent on using them, so it’s probably best to see e-cigs as a way of dealing with cravings in the short-term. Secondly, e-cigs that look like cigarettes are often not the most effective kind, much better to use what’s known as ‘tank’ systems.
4. Use Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT)
This is a controversial one. Not scientifically controversial, the evidence strongly suggests that NRT can double your chances of staying smoke free for good; it’s controversial because some prominent stop smoking books and courses take the line that using NRT is just replacing an old addiction with a new one. The reason NRT in the form of patches, lozenges, gum and the rest, is generally not addictive whilst e-cigs may be comes down to how it is taken. With e-cigs the nicotine relieves the cravings and the vapour creates the illusion of smoke, this tricks our brain into thinking we actually are smoking. Whereas NRT simply isn’t as satisfying. Oh it does its job well enough: it relieves cravings. But we don’t come to associate taking NRT with pleasure. The evidence for the helpful effects of NRT is so clear that all health professionals in countries such as the UK and US are advised to recommend its use for people who want to give up smoking. The trick with NRT to use it as directed. It’s tempting to feel that once we’re through the first few days we can use less of it or stop using it entirely. The problem is there are so many triggers that make us want to smoke. Unless we’ve spent a good couple of months ignoring them we’re going to be tempted to give into them. Two months’ use of NRT should be long enough to reprogram our associations with these triggers and make their pull on us much less strong. Please talk to your doctor or pharmacist about using NRT if you are pregnant, use smokeless tobacco, are a light smoker or are under 18.
5. Download an app
Apps provide help and support when and where you need it. Many people find that simply opening an app to see how long they’ve been smoke free or how much money they’ve saved helps them deal with a craving, boosts their confidence, provides a sense of accomplishment and reminds them what they’d lose by returning to smoking. Good apps will show how your health is improving and will provide tips on dealing with cravings. The best, such as Smoke Free(!), will use the techniques that science says gives you the greatest chance of success. There is a huge amount of evidence about the techniques that help people stop smoking. For example, the evidence says that apps shouldn’t just ask you to set a quit date, they should congratulate you for doing so and encourage you to share that quit date with others as that will increase your commitment. Apps should also help you feel a sense of progress as you’ll be less likely to return to smoking when you see all you’ve gained by giving up. Ideally, apps will give you things to do each day too, not least because doing something simple for your quit on a regular basis can actually increase your motivation to resist each and every craving.
6. Follow the rule: Not another puff, no matter what
The golden rule once you have given up smoking is: Not another puff, no matter what. It can be very tempting to think that a few puffs won’t hurt, but the vast majority of quitters who smoke even a single cigarette will go back to smoking fully. Several things happen when we smoke after a period of abstinence: habits are reinforced not extinguished and neuroadaptive changes in the brain are maintained not reversed. Most importantly of all, belief in our ability to quit is undermined. Psychologists have found that breaking a self-imposed rule such as not smoking can lead to feelings of guilt and reduced self-confidence. Since we hate these feelings we often think it’s better to abandon the attempt entirely, rather than continue something that’s going to be unsuccessful. The best approach is to not give ourselves permission to smoke and to create a hard and fast rule that’s clear and easily memorable. Sticking to this rule allows you to create an identity as a non-smoker and helps you reframe smoking as something you simply do not do.
7. Try meditating
Meditation and mindfulness techniques can be highly useful for learning how to let feelings such as cravings pass easily. The idea with mindfulness is simply to observe the craving without responding to it. What this means in practice is noticing we’re having a craving, observing the feelings associated with it without judging them or yourself, and then simply allowing the craving to pass in its own time. There are a ton of online resources, books and apps to help you meditate. And learning to meditate brings a whole host of benefits above and beyond letting a craving go.
Bonus tip: If in doubt get your Google on
Google is a fantastic resource for anyone looking to give up smoking (other search engines are available). Use it to overcome any temptation to return to smoking by searching for tips for dealing with cravings, boost your motivation by learning about the harms of smoking and the benefits of quitting, increase your confidence by reading success stories of people who have successfully quit, read about how NRT, e-cigs or apps can help, or simply use it to distract yourself as you let a craving pass.