Weight gain. Stress. Irritability. If you’re one of the nearly 70 percent of smokers who, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), want to kick their habit for good, you may be all too-familiar with these withdrawal symptoms. But the good news is that all of these challenges — including stress — can be managed, which raises your odds of quitting for good. “Your life doesn’t change completely the moment that you quit smoking,” says Bill Blatt, MPH, the national director of tobacco control programs for the American Lung Association (ALA).
The first step toward success is to find a way to cope with each stressful situation in your life. Read on for tips and techniques that can help you kick the habit and remain smoke free.
Before you attempt to quit, it’s helpful to know how smoking and stress are connected. Many smokers light up in part because they find it relaxing. That’s because cigarettes contain nicotine, which releases a feel-good chemical called dopamine into your body, causing you to feel more at ease. But the good feeling is short lived: As soon as the nicotine wears off, you start to experience withdrawal, which is stressful. “It’s not so much that the cigarette is relieving your stress,” Blatt says. “It’s that the cigarette is causing you stress in the first place. You’re relieving it by feeding that addiction.” This is a vicious cycle that’s hard to break, especially as you try to quit smoking for good. But understanding this connection, and having a good smoking cessation plan — including ways to effectively manage stress — can help you overcome the addiction.
Let’s be honest: If the idea of quitting smoking strikes you as stressful, that’s because it is. “We don’t want to hide that,” Blatt says. But rather than becoming discouraged by this fact or feeling like a failure, if you simply acknowledge that quitting is challenging, you can frame the task more realistically. It’s helpful to keep in mind, for example, that it’s perfectly normal to make several attempts before you’re able to quit for good. “It often takes more than one try, and that’s okay,” Blatt says. “We call those practice quits.” Still, quitting for good is well within your reach. The CDC reports that there are now more former smokers than current smokers in the United States.
According to the ALA, a smoking addiction comprises three aspects: the physical, the mental, and the social. While some people may struggle with one aspect more than another, Blatt says, “we think everyone has all three at least a little bit.” With regard to the social aspect, it can be tougher to quit if your socializing revolves around the addiction — for example, taking smoking breaks with co-workers. But social support is crucial during smoking cessation, for dealing with the stress of quitting as well as other stressors in your life. “Recruit support from family and friends as you’re trying to quit,” Blatt advises, adding that you might want to enlist your spouse or a trusted friend to be your “lifeline,” to “talk to when you’re feeling stressed or when you’re craving a cigarette.”
People who are trying to quit smoking can often experience stressful physical withdrawal symptoms, including nicotine cravings, headaches, and irritability. To address these symptoms, Blatt recommends smoking cessation aids such as nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) patches, medication, or gum. “Using these aids can really help with stress,” he says. For example, NRT takes the edge off nicotine withdrawal, reducing your symptoms and lessening the urge to smoke. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that smokers who used NRT patches for at least four weeks had a higher likelihood of quitting than those who didn’t use the aids. Smoking cessation aids are available over the counter; you can also ask your doctor for a prescription if over-the-counter products don’t work for you.
Exercise can ease both the physical and mental challenges brought on by quitting smoking. Being active can minimize weight gain by burning calories, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can also help boost your mood and decrease your overall stress level. Don’t worry about finding the “right” kind of exercise; instead, Blatt says, try to find some activity that you enjoy and will keep doing.
Deep breathing is just one relaxation technique that may help ease your stress. “Find a quiet place and take 10 deep breaths to calm yourself down,” Blatt says. Deep breathing sends a message to your body to slow down — which can reduce your heart rate as well as lower your blood pressure, according to the Harvard Health Publication. Other techniques to soothe the body include progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery, during which you imagine your smoke-free life. These three stress-reduction methods, says Blatt, are taught in the ALA’s Freedom From Smoking program.
Just as no two people are alike, your path to finally quitting may not look exactly like that of someone else who has stopped smoking. Remember that it’s normal to experience some trial and error as you are attempting to quit. Because of that, it’s important to keep trying, even if you slip up and have an occasional cigarette. If you do, don’t beat yourself up over it; think about what caused you to smoke and how you can address the trigger in the future. For example, if you often smoke when you have a drink, you might opt to abstain from alcohol while you’re quitting. “Keep going,” Blatt advises. “As long as you keep trying, and figuring out new combinations of things that are good for you, you will be able to quit smoking.” If you have questions about how to stop smoking, or feel stuck in your attempt, call your state’s quit line at 1-800-QUIT-NOW for free advice.
Although quitting smoking can feel stressful at times, Blatt says the key to success is not to give up. “Everybody can quit smoking,” he says. And remember: You don’t have to go it alone. There are people and resources available to support you throughout your effort. One last tip: The stress associated with quitting smoking will end, and in turn, you’ll have a lifetime of health and financial benefits. “When you get through this and you quit for good,” says Blatt, “that stressful situation is done and you don’t have to do it again.” If you have questions or would like to develop a quit-smoking plan, call the ALA’s Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNGUSA, visit Freedom From Smoking, or ask your doctor about local support groups.