There are many reasons to quit smoking: health, finance, pregnancy, or even just freedom from smoking hassles such as bad breath, stained fingernails or finding a smoke friendly space. Whatever your motivation to quit smoking, there can be a lot of unknowns on your journey to a smoke-free life. Read on to explore how to quit smoking, what you can expect when you quit, and find out how it really feels to stop smoking⸺especially in the first few hours, days, and weeks.
Why quit smoking can be hard
If you’ve tried to quit before, or watched a friend go through the process, you know it’s not always as simple as putting down the cigarettes and never smoking again.
You’re not alone. Every year over half of all smokers in the US attempt to quit, but only 8% do so successfully. In fact, various studies have shown it can take anywhere between eight and 30 attempts to kick the habit.
There are a few reasons why quitting smoking can be hard:
- Nicotine dependence or addiction
- Removing a ‘relaxation’ tool
- Difficulty in letting go of a daily ritual
- Changing social interactions.
Nicotine and the brain
Nicotine is a highly addictive compound and a key component of cigarettes and e-cigarettes.
If you feel the urge to smoke within 30 minutes of waking, or smoke more than 10 cigarettes a day or have experienced a craving for cigarettes on previous quit attempts, then it is likely that you have a nicotine dependency.
When nicotine is inhaled it moves, within seconds, to the brain creating a ‘buzz’.
You may notice when you’re smoking that you feel highly alert and filled with energy. This is because nicotine mimics a natural chemical, acetylcholine, which is received by the nicotinic receptors in your brain to trigger attention, memory, and cognitive processing. Importantly, nicotine triggers these responses at a much higher rate than the natural chemical. Hence, the buzz you feel.
There are nicotinic receptors pretty much everywhere in your brain, including your dopamine neurons in the area of the brain most associated with addiction. When dopamine is released into your body, you get a very pleasant feeling of reward.
To put it simply: inhaling nicotine sends an almost instant feeling of reward to the area of your brain associated with addiction. It also gives you a temporary buzz and feelings of alertness. Your brain translates this as a positive experience and sends you signals to repeat the process.
The relaxation myth
The number one myth of smoking is that it relaxes you. In truth, smoking provides only temporary relief from nicotine withdrawal symptoms.
Once your body has developed a dependency on nicotine, it will work hard to convince you that cigarettes are rewarding and relaxing. While you smoke, your brain is sending messages that ‘This is good! You are relaxed! You feel relief!”
But within minutes of finishing your cigarette, those feelings will begin to fade and within hours, you may notice irritability, anxiety, or even depression⸺these are nicotine withdrawal symptoms kicking in.
For your brain, at this point, there is only one solution⸺another cigarette.
For many, this loop that can make the first few days, or even hours, of quitting the hardest. It also builds an association between stress, smoking, relief, and relaxation.
The daily ritual
When do you smoke? Is it at a certain time of day, or while you’re doing a certain activity? For some of us, smoking becomes a daily ritual. You may have your first cigarette as you drink your morning coffee and read the news. It might be a reward on the drive home from work.
In the process of quitting, it’s important to be aware of these rituals, and other times that trigger a craving for a cigarette so you can manage the habits that you’ve built over time.
Changing social interactions
Do your colleagues, friends, or partner smoke? Studies have shown that people looking to quit, but are socially close to other smokers, may have difficulty stopping. That doesn’t, however, mean that it’s not possible.
Interestingly the converse is also true, and studies have shown that people who quit at the same time as a partner, or with a quit buddy, have a higher level of success
How long does it take to quit smoking?
Quitting can take time. Because of the nicotine dependence your body may have developed, as well as the habits, rituals and social aspects of smoking⸺the urge to smoke can remain for weeks.
That doesn’t mean you can’t smoke your last cigarette and stop immediately⸺it just means that you need to expect some challenges along the way.
Nicotine withdrawal symptoms can happen almost immediately and the first few hours, and days are critical. So it’s a good idea to have a plan in place for when those urges hit. Breathing exercises, yoga, healthy snacks, a friend to call, a game on your phone⸺get creative!
You can expect nicotine withdrawal to peak within the first three days and continue to decline from there on in. For most people nicotine withdrawal is finished between two to four weeks from the last cigarette.
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What does it feel like to quit smoking?
Quitting smoking can feel liberating, scary and challenging all at once.
Physically and emotionally you can expect the following symptoms as your body begins nicotine withdrawal:
- The urge to smoke!
- Irritation, anger, sadness
- Lack of concentration.
You may even experience a sense of grief⸺losing a constant companion, or perhaps a social aid that you have become accustomed to over time. But understand, most of these cravings and emotions will begin to alleviate once your body is no longer craving nicotine.
Quit smoking side-effects: the good and the bad
The same day you quit smoking your body begins to change. In the very first day and week your heart rate slows, your blood pressure becomes more stable and you may notice your hands are warmer and steadier. Your sense of smell and taste will also start to improve in the first week and your lungs’ natural cleaning system kicks in, cleaning up mucus and tar.
Good side-effects of quitting smoking
As well as the immediate side-effects you experience in the first days and week, you can also expect continued improvements the longer you go without a cigarette:
Six months: you’re unlikely to cough up phlegm.
One year: you can breathe easier.
Two years: you dramatically reduce your changes of heart attack, stroke, and, for women, cancer of the cervix. This continues to improve over time.
10 years: your risk of lung cancer has lowered.
15 years: you face the same risk of heart attack or stroke as someone who has never smoked.
As your heart rate decreases, your blood circulation increases, and your lung function improves, so too will your fitness abilities. You may even see dramatic improvements in your fitness within two weeks of quitting.
You will also notice changes to your appearance over time. As oxygen delivery improves around your body you may notice an improved complexion and a reduction in discolouring of your fingers and nails.
You will almost certainly halt the damaging affects of smoking on your appearance, including age spots, sagging skin, deep lines, and stained teeth.
One incredibly positive side effect is your self-respect. This is a challenge, and by committing to it and doing something that can improve your health and wellbeing, is something to be proud of.
Bad side-effects of quitting smoking
While the benefits of quitting smoking far outweigh the negative side-effects, it’s good to be aware, and prepare for them.
The first unpleasant side-effect you may experience when you stop smoking is nicotine withdrawal. This can rear its ugly head within hours of quitting and includes feelings of irritation, anxiety, and depression alongside strong cravings. This side-effect is only temporary and should start to improve after two to four weeks. It’s helpful to have a plan in place for when these cravings occur. Create a pleasant distraction, like a walk, game of Candy Crush or 5 minutes of meditation. Chewing can also help, and while it’s advised to avoid sugary treats, chewing on sugar-free gum or something crunchy such as a carrot sticks can help move you through the danger period without stacking on the pounds.
A second, common side effect is weight gain. On average people gain five to 10 pounds (2.25kg to 4.5kg) when they quit. There are a few reasons this may happen.
- Nicotine speeds up your metabolism.
It increases the amount of calories your body burns by up to 15%. Therefore, when you quit, you may find your body is burning significantly less calories, even without changing your diet.
- Cigarettes suppress appetite.
So, not only will your body burn less calories, at the same time you may be hungrier and consume more.
- Tempting treats.
Many people feel the urge to work their way through cravings by eating high-calorie food. Your mouth is looking for satisfaction and this may feel like the next best thing!
Knowing this in advance can help you plan a ‘healthy’ way to quit, feeding your body with good foods, having healthy snacks at hand during times of cravings, and making sure exercise is a consistent part of your life.
Ways to quit smoking
There are many ways to quit smoking, and in good news there is nothing stopping you from using multiple methods at once to give yourself the best chance of saying goodbye to cigarettes forever.
Going cold turkey
Going cold turkey is probably the most popular, and the least effective method of quitting smoking. While it’s great to make that final decision that you’re done with cigarettes, cold turkey doesn’t address the reasons why you smoke. It also throws you straight into nicotine withdrawal.
Studies have shown that stopping abruptly can lead to longer abstinence, but it must come with support, either through counseling, nicotine replacement therapy, hypnotherapy, or even prescription drugs.
Here are some other methods you can use to quit smoking, whether you choose to reduce your cigarettes over time, or stop abruptly.
Nicotine replacement therapy
Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) targets your withdrawal symptoms. Through either patches, gummies, or sprays, it releases the nicotine your body is craving into your body at a much lower level and without the harmful chemicals that are in cigarettes, including tar, and carbon monoxide. It’s thought that by helping to reduce your withdrawal symptoms, you can then focus on the psychological dependence on cigarettes, possibly through hypnotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
NRT is not appropriate for pregnant women, teens or people who are still smoking or consuming other forms of tobacco.
Consider the times that you are most likely to smoke - is it at a certain time of day, while you’re doing a particular activity or when you are with other smokers?
But understanding your smoking habits and triggers, you can avoid them, as much as possible, and start to create new habits.
Do you smoke first thing in the morning? Try starting the day with a brisk walk or a yoga session.
Do you smoke after a meal? Try brushing your teeth immediately after finishing.
Do you smoke while on work breaks? Load yourself up with healthy snacks to satisfy your oral fixation.
Do you smoke while driving? One trick is to put your cigarettes in the trunk of the car!
CBT to quit smoking
CBT for smoking is a psychological intervention that targets the thought processes and behaviors associated with smoking. While there has been very little research into CBT as a standalone tool for quitting cigarettes, it has been shown to be helpful alongside other quit methods.
Hypnotherapy to quit smoking
Hypnotherapy for quitting smoking is another psychological intervention that can address the impulses behind smoking⸺the why you smoke. It combines hypnotic relaxation, mental imagery, and positive therapeutic suggestions to target the neurophysiology of nicotine dependency and smoking behaviors.
Hypnotherapy for smoking cessation acts on the underlying factors by reducing stress, increasing the ability to cope with withdrawal symptoms (until they fade), fostering positive emotional regulation, and increasing motivation to remain free from cigarettes, vaping, or other tobacco products.
Neurobiological brain studies have shown that hypnotherapy sessions activate areas of the brain associated with attention, sensitivity, motivation, and a positive sense of well-being.
While hypnotherapy and CBT both target the psychological urges behind smoking, studies have shown that hypnotherapy is more effective for long-term quitting than CBT, especially when combined with NRT.
Hypnotherapy can also help you to relax, and navigate your nicotine withdrawal symptoms, setting yourself up for long-term success.
Prescriptions to quit smoking
Your doctor may prescribe drugs to help you on your quit journey. One pharmacological treatment is Varenicline which acts to block the pleasant sensations of nicotine that your brain experiences. Studies show that Varenicline can be an effective quit smoking support, but not as effective as using a combination of NRT, and harder to access than mobile apps. There may also be some troubling side-effects such as drowsiness, and changes to mood and behavior including depression and hostility.
Acupuncture to quit smoking
Studies have shown that acupuncture can help motivated smoker reduce their cigarette consumption by or even cease smoking altogether. It’s thought that different acu points have different effects on the desire to smoke.
Group behavior therapy quit programs
Sometimes it’s easier to quit when you’re surrounded by others going through the same process. One study compared group therapy with self-help, individual counseling and no counseling. The study found that group therapy was better for helping people stop smoking than self-help and no intervention, but there wasn’t enough evidence that it was more effective than individual therapy.
The Wrap Up
When it comes to making the move to quit smoking, there is no one-size-fits-all method. What is known is that you are likely to find the first few days and weeks challenging as your body adjusts to nicotine withdrawal. Happily, your body starts recovering from smoking damage almost immediately and weeks after you have quit smoking you can expect to see improvements in your fitness and general health. There are different supports out there to help you quit, that target both the physical challenges and the psychological challenges of quitting. Be sure to talk to your health professional to choose the method that is best for you.