need advice on how to avoid smoking relapse
November 29, 2009 12:36 PM   Subscribe

Ex smokers: What did you do to get past certain stages of withdrawal?

Info: I quit smoking without any type of nicotine replacement about four weeks ago. I've quit many times, the longest being for four months.

A few weeks into quitting (as is currently the case) my mind always tends to resort to dirty tricks to get me to relapse (things like constant, unwanted smoking "nostalgia", or the idea that without smoking I "will never enjoy anything ever again"). It may take a couple of months, but it (my own mind!) is very convincing, as so far this has always resulted in me smoking.

PS: I've tried Wellbutrin twice and it had no effect on me other than making me anxious. Also, I want to avoid re-intoducing nicotine back into my system in the form of NRT.

posted by marimeko to Health & Fitness (41 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
While quitting I also cut out some things I associated with cigarettes, most notably coffee and booze. I only went back to those after I was at least a bit adjusted to life as a non-smoker and the "But you HAVE to have a cigarette with X; that's just how it's done" instinct had quieted down. I even avoided reading on restaurant patios for a while. If you have similar triggers, try cutting them out as well.
posted by kmennie at 12:49 PM on November 29, 2009

I endlessly chewed Altoids. Every time I wanted a cigarette, I chewed an Altoid or nine. It worked- I haven't smoked in six years- but I can't eat Altoids anymore, because they remind me of smoking. It was a fair trade!
posted by headspace at 12:49 PM on November 29, 2009

One thing that I think helped me a lot was some deep breathing exercises when I got a craving. I would breath deeply enough to 'feel' it, and thus be given the sensation of drawing in smoke. Don't hyperventilate though!

Beyond that, just having the mentality that quitting is mind over matter helped me immensely. I ignored the possibility of physical withdrawal (which I had experienced on previous quittempts), and lo!, had none. I would also remind myself that if I ever started again, I would just want to quit again, so why bother?

I am sunshinesky, and I have not had a cigarette in 539 days.

Cold Turkey is the best thing you could ever do. It places the onus on you alone, and guess what, there's a reward at the end! Confidence in your own will. Now that's what I call power!
posted by sunshinesky at 12:51 PM on November 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

And congratulations, by the way. The first month is the hardest.
posted by sunshinesky at 12:53 PM on November 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

I've been struggling like this, off and on, and I've realized that one problem that I have that may be related to nostalgia is that I view smoking as a luxury. It can simultaneously be a treat for accomplishing something as well as a palliative for feeling bad. Insidious, as we all know. I deal with this by putting the expense of smoking in perspective and re-aligning my concept of luxury, in that for $7/day I can treat myself pretty well when I'm feeling either down or accomplished.

Think up three weeks (or however long) of smoking costs and I'm sure you can find a decent distraction.
posted by rhizome at 12:54 PM on November 29, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks hive-mind! This is all great advice..
posted by marimeko at 1:07 PM on November 29, 2009

I found it very helpful to remind myself that if I started smoking again, I'd have to stop smoking again, and that first couple of weeks FUCKING SUCKED - and are not something I wish to experience.
posted by pompomtom at 1:07 PM on November 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

Quit cold turkey in 2003. Though I occasionally still imagine/feel a smoke would be a good idea, I've never given in to the temptation. It's become an (internal) point of pride.
posted by fake at 1:11 PM on November 29, 2009

my mind always tends to resort to dirty tricks to get me to relapse

You aren't in physical withdrawal any more, exactly. That fades when nicotine leaves your body. What you're dealing with instead are the years of pathways you've built in your brain that are used to a regular nicotine fix. The feeling you have now is your addicted brain trying to get you to smoke again.

What you have to do is build new pathways. There aren't many ways to do this other than to be patient with yourself as you restructure your brain. Some things I found helpful:

-I kept an index card in my wallet listing the 5 very personal reasons I wanted to quit smoking. When I felt the urge, I pulled out the card and read it. I also read it whenever I was bored and had some downtime. This helped me stay focused and stop romanticizing cigarettes.
-I started exercising. IT helped reduce stress and that helped reduce the prodding in my brain that responded to stress by requesting a cigarette.
-I congratulated myself frequently and rewarded myself a lot, regularly, for all milestones (1 day, 3 days, 1 week, 2 weeks, 3, a month, three months, six months, a year). After a year I didn't really need or even remember rewards. But I needed to feel tangibly rewarded by my sacrifice of smokes, and see the evidence of my success.
-I used an online QuitMeter to feel proud of my accomplishments.
-I let other goals take second priority to stopping smoking. Sure I needed to lose weight, update my resume, work on my relationship, yadda yadda yadda, but for the six months it needed to be, I made sure that the bulk of my personal energy was available to help me quit smoking. And I didn't apologize for doing weird things like turning down invitations - just because I plain didn't feel like it, was moody or irritable, or thought that it might make me want to smoke.
-I tried to envision situations in which I would be really tempted to smoke, and make a concrete plan for what I would do in each. The situations were things like going out with friends to our regular bar night (I skipped it for a month, and the first time I went was actually no problem at all, which surprised me in a good way); visiting family for a lengthy vacation and being around my brother and SIL when they smoked; going on break at work with certain other smokers; having an insanely stressful day; and just wanting to relapse. These plans were as concrete as to specify exactly what I would do in response to the craving: take a walk, call a friend, buy and read a magazine, go to a movie, etc.
-I was (and still am) totally obnoxious about bragging how well I was doing and how long I had gone without a cigarette. It's definitely one of the hardest things anyone would do by choice, excepting maybe blood marrow donation or childbirth, and you deserve credit for it. If others aren't giving it to you, take it brazenly: "So good to see you guys tonight and celebrate my 35 days smoke-free!" Whatever.

It's SO worth it. I've stayed quit seven and a half years, after thirteen years of smoking up to 1.5 packs a day. This phase is definitely a trick of the brain, which wishes it could go back to using that crutch of nicotine for a quick hit of "reward!" . It can't do that any more, so you have to teach yourself some other, new ways to soothe, reward, and refresh yourself. It takes a little time, but you won't ever be sorry you fought through it. COngrats and good luck!
posted by Miko at 1:21 PM on November 29, 2009 [13 favorites]

What pompomtom said. You're quitting because you know you have to, and from prior experience you know that you can't just have one or two, or you'll unquit. Anything else you tell yourself is a lie, whispered in your ear by addiction. There is no try, only do!
posted by mumkin at 1:22 PM on November 29, 2009

The "dirty tricks" your mind is playing on you is just your smoking habit trying to suck you back in. Do you really want to let it win?

As to practical suggestions, here are my recollections from almost 12 years ago. I diverted my attention by doing things I never associated with smoking: long walks, bubble baths, reading in bed, etc. Plus avoiding situations that seemed to always result in having a smoke: drinking in a bar, hanging out with other people while they were smoking, etc.

Just remember that there are as many successful ways to quit smoking as there are people who have quit smoking successfully, so find what works for you and do it.
posted by DrGail at 1:23 PM on November 29, 2009

I used to make myself think about smoked meat and ponder that that was what my lungs were on the way to becoming. It also helped to think about a family member who had to breath through a hole in the neck and talk with an electrolarynx.

Btw I substituted scotch mints, and that worked well (hard on the teeth though).
posted by fish tick at 1:30 PM on November 29, 2009

This isn't advice as much as it is just my experience (because I can't tell you to "just do" something), but....

what worked for me this time (650 days or so quit after 25 years of smoking starting at age 9) was finally, FINALLY accepting that if I ever, ever have ONE FUCKING CIGARETTE again, I am a smoker.

I don't want to be a smoker anymore.

Each time I want one (and believe me, I do once in a while), I say to myself "I do not want to be a smoker. If I give in, I am a smoker. I am not a smoker."

It's basically acknowledging that if I do the thing my brain and body are telling me to, I have just undone all my hard work, and I refuse to do that.

(And, those cravings DO pass - maybe in minutes, maybe in an hour, but if you can just white-knuckle through it, there's one more hour of non-smoking under your belt - one more hour closer to freedom from cigarettes.)
posted by tristeza at 1:45 PM on November 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

I got a pack of herbal cigarettes in the first month. No tobacco or nicotine. When I felt I just had to have a cigarette, I would smoke one of them. They taste terrible. Not pleasurable at all. I think this helped me stop associating the act of smoking with the usual relief from withdrawal. A touch of aversion therapy, as it were.

Also, no stop-smoking thread would be complete without recommending Allen Carr's Easy Way. It's main draw is that it teaches you to rethink your relationship with cigarettes. That you don't actually enjoy them, and it's only the addiction that makes you think that you do. It's just as useful after you've already quit. I would re-read it if I felt I was going to lapse.
posted by team lowkey at 1:52 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I did a lot of tricks already mentioned: using a quit tracker on, change habitual behaviours, remind myself of how much quitting sucks, etc.

Other strategies...:

I shared my desire to quit with friends, and told them I "gave" it to them as a gift. (In part because I quit around several friends' birthdays and one wedding, and I was seriously broke from buying NRT stuff.) The guilt of starting to smoke again and having to tell them I fucked up (or "took away their gift") was pretty powerful. Yay for awesome (and, non-smoking) friends as support!

I gave myself permission to be a little weird. So, if I felt like pacing neurotically, I let myself do it. If I wanted to hold a pen like a cigarette (essentially fondling it between my middle finger and index finger in a smoker-y way) I let myself do that. If I was at a holiday party, and I missed smoking because it let me take a moment to myself away from the crowds, I just let myself stand outside, alone, for 3 minutes, just to chill and breathe and NOT smoke. I probably still do these things occassionally, just because the psychological and habitual cravings were so strong. Letting myself chill out and be quirky(-er) has just benefited me a lot in general, but especially in regards to quitting.

I also cut out certain behaviours too strongly associated with smoking. For me, it was alcohol + live rock shows (most venues at the time were very smoky).

Refer to yourself as an EX-smoker, especially if you have social/casual-smoker friends. This reinforces the idea that while THEY might be able to have one or two cigs at the bar, YOU CANNOT. Remind them: That's in your past, and you don't smoke any more because you became addicted. End of story.

Congrats on your hard work so far. Quitting smoking is, like, my top life accomplishment so far. It's so, so, so hard, and you rock for keeping at it!
posted by NikitaNikita at 1:59 PM on November 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yes, congrats on quitting!
I also know all about those dirty tricks your mind plays. Smokers lie to themselves all the time.

My mantra when I was quitting was:
'Smoking creates a void, it does not fill one'

I said this over and over to myself.
I think I got it from Allen Carr's book (highly recommended)

It also helped to remember that the cigarette that I think I wanted would just open the door to the next one, and the one after that. There's never just one smoke.
posted by gillianr at 2:01 PM on November 29, 2009

Exercise (I started lifting weights myself). Do stuff that makes you use your slowly healing lungs. Also, Celestial Seasonings has a tea called "Tension Tamer" that actually does tame tension (in my experience).
posted by thylacine at 2:08 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

From 20 cigaretts a day, I quit cold turkey on the spur of the moment in August 1998. I'd never quit for more than a couple of hours previously.

Some thoughts that kept me from relapsing:

Similar to pompomtoms reply, fearing that I'd have to repeat the process.
Knowing that I had set a personal best in going without a cigarette and wanting to continue my streak with each smoke-free day.
I printed up a calendar and each day without a cigarette, I wrote in how much money I wasn't giving to Phillip Morris.
This helped motivate me: Voice Box Chior clip from Michael Moore's The Awful Truth
posted by goshling at 2:45 PM on November 29, 2009

Response by poster: Every single answer has either given me a new method to try or a different way of thinking about this.. You guys completely rock!
posted by marimeko at 2:48 PM on November 29, 2009

Kind of an echo of what has come before me, but kind of not: I decided that I just plain old wasn't a smoker any more. Other non-smokers enjoy things all the time; so could I. Other non-smokers dealt with trauma by solutions other than smoking; so could I. This was just something that I plain old don't do any more.

If it helps any, the cigarette I ground out in 1996 and publicly proclaimed as my Last! Cigarette! Ever! was, in fact, my last cigarette ever. I stopped wanting one after every meal about a year later; I still occasionally dream that I'm smoking. But I've never picked another one up.
posted by KathrynT at 2:55 PM on November 29, 2009

Quit cold turkey over four years ago. I constantly reminded myself that quitting was so awful that I never wanted to go through it again. I also used toothpicks with tea tree oil as a psychological substitute for the ritualistic and oral fixation aspects of smoking. I kept them where I had kept my cigs so I could mimic the action of pulling out the pack, opening it, sticking something in my mouth, futzing with it, etc. I did this whenever my prior habit would have had me going for a cigarette. It helped me transition and let go.
posted by Mavri at 3:07 PM on November 29, 2009

It worked, but don't do what I did.
I quit on Halloween 1999. (Just celebrated 10 years!)
Just before that Thanksgiving I got exercise, more than I was used to.
I had a heart attack. Very mild, but an attack none the less. The nurse at the ER said I gave myself a stress test and failed. Six days later, another! They fixed the "widow maker" artery with angioplasty and stent. The first one was 90% blockage. The second was in the same artery, further down, 80% blockage.

Swore me off cigarettes.
posted by Drasher at 3:18 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Like many others above the key for me was "There's no such thing as just one." Even during my most desparate cravings it was always clear to me that I was facing a choice between being either (a) a nonsmoker or (b) a two-pack-a-day smoker. No middle ground.

That heavy choice, that awful consequence, made it easier to choose not smoke. The cravings were still there, and they were awful. But I never fooled myself about the consequences of giving into them.

The more convinced you are about that, the easier it is to resist. Studies have shown that the desire to smoke is actually weaker when smokers know they absolutely cannot smoke, such as in a hospital or office. Keeping that awful consequence in mind has a similar effect.
posted by mono blanco at 3:42 PM on November 29, 2009

Response by poster: Drasher: freaking incredible! I love the fact that it was called the *widow maker*..
posted by marimeko at 3:47 PM on November 29, 2009

I quit cold turkey 5 years ago. Just to add to all the great answers above:

What you're feeling now is the psychological addiction, this is the result of all the positive reinforcement between good things and smoking that you build up over the years. For example having a smoke with that first cup of coffee in the morning, after sex, to reward yourself for finishing a task at work and so on. I found that I had to change the habit to break it. So for each of the times I previously smoked I tried to find a non smoking replacement.

One of the biggest things for me was the smoking break at work. I replaced going outside to smoke with going outside for a walk around the building.
I changed when I drank that first cup of coffee from home (easy to smoke) to work (harder to smoke).
I removed the ashtray from my car and threw out all the ashtrays at home.
I avoided situations where I'd usually smoke (mostly drinking with friends). I was really happy that they banned smoking in bars as that made things considerably easier.

So basically avoid or replace situations where you used to smoke.

Lastly, just remember these cravings WILL go away. It won't be too long before you go for months at a time without even thinking about smoking. And at some point you'll realize that you never want to smoke again and it won't be any big deal. Good Luck.
posted by Long Way To Go at 3:58 PM on November 29, 2009

So basically avoid or replace situations where you used to smoke.

I did the absolute opposite of this as a part of my quit strategy. I didn't avoid it at all. I quit during patio season, and refused to let my quitting affect my social life. I've seen too many people avoid 'smoking situations', and when they inevitably went back to them, they would start smoking again. I deliberately joined coworkers on smoke breaks, and allowed my husband to continue smoking in the house around me-- we have since moved and he now prefers to smoke outside, but at the time I felt it was important to minimize the psychological impact of secondhand smoke through exposure. I went through a period of disgust with the smell of smoke when my sense of smell returned, but that softened into nostalgia. That was a tricky part, but I got through it, and now generally don't mind the stench of cigarettes. Sure it's kind of gross, but it neither makes me want to smoke nor throw up now, so I think there was some benefit to my strategy.
posted by sunshinesky at 4:07 PM on November 29, 2009

More variation on the "be strong" concept. I'm seven years clean after 20 years of smoking. I tried to quit dozens of times. In my imagination, I still want one almost every single day. I found that for me, tricks/habit replacements/diversions were nothing but that, and they only worked so long. This advice finally helped me to stay clean. Maybe it will help you:

Acknowledge that cigarettes are awesome and that you want one. Then say no. Pick one up, sniff it, look at it and ask yourself which one of you is stronger. Seriously.

I carried a sealed pack and matches with me for months after quitting so that I could face them down just like this. I feel that it really helped me see the addiction more clearly as a beatable thing.

Your addiction may vary.
posted by quarterframer at 4:59 PM on November 29, 2009


I too quit cold turkey after smoking for 11 years. The thing that helped me through the first few weeks was this: I cut plastic drinking straws in half. Whenever I had the urge to light up, I'd suck air through the straw (conveniently cigarette-sized) and exhale it, just as if I was smoking. It looked extremely dorky, I'm sure. But the folks around me knew what I was doing and were supportive.

Of course this doesn't help with replacing the nicotine, but rather with the ritual. I also ate as many mini Reese's peanut butter cups as I could stand every time I felt the pang of not having any nicotine in my body. I'd rather be fat than a smoker. (I've since lost all that weight.)

Good luck. If I did it, you can do it.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 6:39 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: If you're saying what I think you're saying (that I can replace smoking entirely with mini peanut butter cups) yay!

thanks! :)
posted by marimeko at 6:59 PM on November 29, 2009

Congrats on going cold turkey, it's the only way that has worked for me! November is actually my one year anniversary since quitting and last night I actually did, for whatever dumb, drunken logic I used on myself, "reward" myself with a cigarette. It was actually a positive reinforcement for the negative reinforcement I've been using to get through the past year. Naturally, not only did I wake up with a hangover, but my throat was absolutely nuked and I could barely talk. I'm still not entirely sure how I went from point a to point b, other than having a very supportive boyfriend and family (my mom, ex and I all stopped around the same time), but I do know that I have avoided a full out relapse so far by 1) appreciating how much my body has benefited from even a short hiatus, and 2) not shying away from other smokers -- but using friends, co-workers and fellow bar-goers as reminders of just how damn icky it is. Like what Miko said, sometimes immersion helps, but only if your head is so far up your non-smoking ass that you can't possibly glamorize it anymore. It's like going back to a lover that beats you -- why the hell would you do it?

So that was a pretty good reminder, for me, that no matter how wonderful those lustful drags feel - nothing feels as awesome as clear lungs, increased energy, no gross morning cough, no sore throat, no smoker's breath, no more Febreze bottles in the car, no Thelma and Patty voice to look forward to, and being able to bound up stairs and leap over tall buildings. Or at least being able to be obnoxious when asking for a "non smoking" seat at a restaurant.

Seriously, I know it's super obvious, but not smoking feels great, and after knowing the opposite for so long, maybe it is possible to get addicted to that feeling instead?
posted by Juicy Avenger at 7:29 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been smoke-free for 434 days, 22 hours, 39 minutes and 50 seconds... Some other quit stats:

- Cigarettes NOT smoked: 9569

- Lifetime Saved: 2 months, 13 days, 2 hours

- Money Saved: $3,313.16

Keeping track of numbers like these have helped with the sense of accomplishment of quitting, and certainly help me think twice about any momentary craving.

More than this, however, *exercise* has been the difference. It became abundantly clear, and quickly, that I'm capable of so much more smoke-free than I'd been able to do while I smoked. I really feel like I got a new lease on, well... just about everything.
posted by deCadmus at 7:45 PM on November 29, 2009

The first thing I noticed when I quit was all the smells that I couldn't smell before. So, I filled the ashtrays in my car and house with potpourri and started wearing perfume. I ate sugar-free breath mints like crazy and I spent all my cigarette money on used CDs. It's also amazing how much it helps just to take a deep breath when you have a craving.
posted by zinfandel at 8:12 PM on November 29, 2009

I quit a few times, the longest being a few months. I have quit most recently three weeks ago today, and I'm doing surprisingly well, much more confident and far less craving than in previous tries.

I attribute this to the patch, so far.

What it's done for me is helped me recognize the habitual times that i would have a cigarette. I get the signal in my brain, "Oh, this is where/when i would have a cigarette." At the bus stop, after a meal, or walking from point a to point b, or in the car at a red light, or at bedtime, wherever. I have become much more aware of the triggers.

The difference is that there's no physical drive for the nicotine to back up that sentiment, and therefore I don't need to reach for a cig; the nic's already in my system. So I look at the situation I'm in, and I go, "a-HA, I am doing X or Y and I am NOT smoking! HA!"

And it feels good. I am going to go down to 14 mg patches when I am done with these 21 mg's, about a week or so from now, and fromthere two weeks later to 7 mg, and then hopefully by the time I'm off, I will understand that I can fill my time with things other than smoke breaks, and yada yada yada. I do like the new tastes and smells, and my girlfriend thinks I smell better, too. Carry the benefits with you when you have a craving.

Anyway, good luck! Hope this is your last time quitting!
posted by not_on_display at 10:23 PM on November 29, 2009

Running. And being broke as hell. Gum works too. Seriously, I've gone from running 2 miles on smoker lungs to 6 on clear lungs, and I'm only getting better. I now crave running instead of a smoke when I'm stressed. I do keep emergency gum on me for when I'm stuck in traffic, though.

Good luck! It's tough, but it can be done!
posted by shinyshiny at 11:55 PM on November 29, 2009

Lots of good advice here.

The things I remember helping me:

-Cravings are temporary, even in the beginning. The deep breath advice is good. Cravings also sloooowly become less frequent and less intense. Dig in, it's worth it.

-That voice that says (whines), "But you mean I can NEVER smoke again??" eventually goes away and quicker than you think.

-I think the trick for me was multiple attempts. Eventually you learn that the hard part is at the beginning and you slowly train yourself to hate that part and eventually the thought of going through that again trumps the desire to smoke.

-In the early stages, I used Harmon's flavored toothpicks (Cinnamon and Cinnamon/Mint), but if I were doing it today, I'd buy a case of Caribou Coffee's Hoof Mints - very strong, very satisfying.

Good luck to you. I've been quit twenty years this March and have saved somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40,000 dollars.
posted by OneOliveShort at 12:26 AM on November 30, 2009

One more thing: this surprisingly touching blog post by b3ta founder Rob Manuel is full of useful tips and the comments are marvellous.
posted by hnnrs at 4:25 AM on November 30, 2009

I kept looking at lists like this one, which tell you what health issues you're less likely to suffer as time passes since your last cigarette. And I want to second what someone said up there about not wanting to go through those first two weeks ever again.

The first month was the worst, for me. After that, it got easier and easier and now I never want a cigarette at all.

Oh, and definitely treat yourself. Smoothies and mochas were my little not-having-a-cigarette treats and that helped tons.
posted by hought20 at 7:02 AM on November 30, 2009

the Easy Way method is the best. Think about how crappy smoking makes you feel, and how lucky you are to have quit, how great you feel to be free, etc.
posted by xammerboy at 7:20 AM on November 30, 2009

I quit 6 months ago, after smoking a pack a day for a decade. Cold turkey, second attempt.

I still get my random cravings, and the one thing that works above all others is reminding myself that the way you remember that cigarette tasting/feeling will NOT be how you feel when you smoke THIS one, so what's the point?

For some reason that works for me.
posted by Windigo at 10:16 AM on November 30, 2009

and the one thing that works above all others is reminding myself that the way you remember that cigarette tasting/feeling will NOT be how you feel when you smoke THIS one, so what's the point?

Oooh yeah. This. Very much.
posted by pompomtom at 3:41 PM on December 1, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone! There's lots of great advice here (that I continue to refer to keep on track)!
posted by marimeko at 2:24 PM on December 30, 2009

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