Saturday, January 15, 2011

How to quit smoking ?

I long wanted to share my experiences with getting rid of the tobacco addiction, and I've noticed one of my friends abandoning the habit of smoking, so this is a good trigger to do so.

So - how to quit smoking ? The first trick - don't. No, I do not mean continue smoking. Do not put this hard and fast barrier, this non-negotiable resolution - "never, never again". Phrase it differently for yourself - "I will stop smoking. Just for some time. I can always get back to it if I want."

Why do I say so ? Because smoking is an activity with an immediate short-term positive feedback, and big long-term negative feedback. But since human intuition is pretty bad at assessing the long-term events, the short-term positive has a much more dramatic impact. So, you put for yourself this prohibitive barrier. More over, it's not one but just two hardships that you create for yourself:

  1. The difficulty of having to survive the lack of the short-term positive feel of smoking
  2. The fear of guilt that you will experience when you violate your "never again" promise to yourself. This guilt will make your future 'quitting' attempts harder in itself - because you will be afraid of this negative feeling that comes when you would not be able to make it.

The second one has a huge ripple effect in my opinion - not only you are feeling the guilt in yourself violating your own promise, you also lower your own self-esteem. Subsequently you try to create an escape out of this labyrinth by either saying that it was not really 'for real' or that you have the unique condition which subjects you to strong physical addiction. Well, save yourself from this nonsense. Therefore:

Don't quit - but stop.

"quit" implies a one-time action (and 'never again') - while "stop" does not carry such a pathetic charge. It's simply a declaration of fact that you are transitioning from the smoking state to a non-smoking state. It leaves the freedom of the decision to restart smoking later, if you wish, up to you - without losing your dignity with yourself.

Isn't it good ?

Now, when we sorted out the self-guilt part, we need to figure out what to do with that urge. It's damn hard to avoid going for this awesome morning cigarette after you grabbed your first cup of coffee. Isn't it ? Do you feel this itchy feeling, that pushes you to run and get yourself a pack to get a puff ?

Well, that's my second lesson that I learned. Never try to stop smoking without significantly changing the environment/lifestyle - if you do, you are unnecessarily increasing the difficulty of your task. You don't do that with other activities - so why would you do it when it is about such an important thing as your future health ?

Also - when you change the environment and your schedule - ensure there is no "dead spot" that would make you think to fill it with smoking.

These two learnings make business trips and vacations an ideal place to stop smoking:
your environment is usually unfamiliar, so your mind is concentrated on reacting to the unknown factors rather than following the routine. As well - during these periods your schedule is usually busier than normal, which gives ever more distractions from smoking.

Another important thing that a change in the environment brings - it takes away the "social routine" aspect of smoking. By and large, the social part of smoking is probably the biggest drag of it - and by eliminating it, at least temporarily, you can make your life easier. (Later, when you restart the contacts with your smoker friends, you can simply mention to them that you were not smoking for a few weeks. This will gain you a whole lot of respect and awe from them :-)

The first key period is roughly about a week - that's when the real "physical" effects of nicotine wear out. (NB: This is totally unscientific, and is just my observation on myself). During this period you still may feel some "physical" urge to smoke.

You thought it'd get easier after that ? Well, the physical part is gone. But now we've got a much tougher nut to crack - it's in your head. It lasts about a month starting from your "stop point". At this point, while you are managing to abstain from smoking, the balance is very fragile - and a lot of factors can tip it.

The result of such a tipping will be an avalanche-like wave of desire to get a cigarette - which feels almost physical! Don't believe it - it is not. It's just your brain getting stuck. Whenever you get into such a situation, whatever happens, try not to think about the large green monkey with a banana. :-) Or, more seriously - just try to dissect what seems to be a physical need for a smoke into your reasoning on *why* it drags you there and what triggered it.

Some triggers that will probably cause you do it: a smoking scene in a movie. An argument with other people that will make you stressed and you will want to relieve the stress the same way as you'd do before - with a smoke. A time when you have to wait for something just long enough to have a cigarette. (programmers: "make all", anyone ?)

Fighting these urges is probably the toughest part in the whole exercise. I don't have a good recipe for it. Keep strong and remember that you can distract yourself by other activities. Like, watching this video about marshmallows:

So here we go, few weeks have successfully passed and you're so proud of yourself - you didn't smoke a single cig since you started. Time to pat yourself on the back! Also - note that now you are feeling yourself much better. You are less tired when you wake up in the morning. You have more energy throughout the day.

Note this good feeling well. Try to remember it very hard - and try to compare it with your feelings when you were regularly smoking. This is one of the ways you are building up your barrier to fall into puffing again - strengthening the current state of non-smoking.

But there it comes - somewhere along, friends get you to the party. Modest amounts of alcohol, and then there will always be a smoker at the party. You feel a desire that is irresistible. You think I'd say "be strong and resist the temptation?" Wrong. Go for it - full speed. Get a good doze of alcohol and feel free to smoke as much as you'd do before stopping. Why ? That's because in the morning you're gonna get a terrible hangover! The body, adapted to the absence of nicotine, will have to fight two poisons at once - alcohol and nicotine. A splitting headache guaranteed. So, if you are wise enough, reading this will be enough for you to not smoke that cigarette at the party. If you wanna try it out - go ahead. Just remember not to go overboard - I am not a doctor and I am not responsible if your body decides to go fubar on you.

Sometimes you may feel the circumstances warrant a cigarette - a good talk, what not.
Again - if you are sufficiently long into the process (say, 3+ weeks) - there is nothing to be afraid - you can use this to your advantage. Light up a cigarette, smoke it, and notice for yourself it feels like you put some shit in the mouth. So what was the point of putting it ?

If you repeat these exploratory actions not too close to each other (so as not to get the tastebuds numbed down by a smoke) - you can build a pretty good psychological link of cause-effect: "I puff a cig => it tastes like shit". It will be as good as once you might just ask yourself "so what's the point? I'll just stand nearby if all I wanna do is talk".

Eventually, you realise you have much stronger incentive psychologically to not smoke - and you build up enough of a set of short-term and near-short-term negatives to prevent your brain from tricking itself that it wants a smoke: headache, tiredness, bad taste while smoking, headache in the morning - these are all immediate enough to be quantifiably annoying (as opposed to some very distant death from some weird disease. Which will never happen anyway. 'Cos it's pretty hard for an individual to assess their own death. We overcome the fear of death back in the childhood and never re-learn to feel it again).

Why I say this can work ? I don't have a peer-reviewed scientific evidence to it. It's only based on my own experience. I managed to stop smoking once for half a year, when I was on a 1-month business trip, a few years back. Since then I was looking for a good occasion to repeat this - since I liked the feeling.

Last year starting March I completely stopped smoking - till September. In September I got a block of cigarettes as a present, which laid there for a few weeks, but then the physical presence of the cigarettes and a couple of "favorable" moments did make me pick up some of the smoking habit again. Which I promptly regretted - because I got used to that extra energy that I previously had. Mid-december I stopped again and hardly a couple of cigarettes since then - but I don't feel the "urge". Feels great not to have this dependency. And I do not have the guilt for temporary "restarting" fallback. I never promised to "never ever" in the first place - so I did not violate any promises to myself.

It's up to you to decide how much I practice what I preached here, whether to believe it or not, and whether it is better to stop smoking than to quit smoking. I'd be delighted to hear your results in the comments.

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