Love it / Hate it - Tobacco
February 21, 2013 7:54 PM   Subscribe

How typical are my mental states when using nicotine / withdrawing?

I am an inveterate intermittent smoker. While I don't smoke regularly (and certainly not unapologetically), I do smoke when I'm especially stressed and/or feeling trapped and hopeless.

Having gone through the relapse cycle a number of times (someone once said, 'Quitting smoking is easy, I've done it a thousand times,' and I completely get that sentiment), I repeatedly find myself in a handful of familiar mental states, namely:

1. Acuity: A pronounced uptick in my quality of thoughts / intellect. My mind works like it did when I was in college; I think more broadly, and am interested in a wider spectrum of things. I feel sharper, more engaged, more aware, quicker.
2. Compulsivity: Given the benefits of 1., my thought process turns to 'Hey, I need to smoke as many of these as possible right now!', as I feel like SuperMe, even knowing it's a temporary effect.
3. Shame / Self-Hatred: My chest hurts, my clothes stink, my mouth tastes bad, my mental states become less normal. 'Why do I do this to myself?'
4. Withdrawal: uber-duber anxiety and self-doubt
5. Baseline: i.e., in control of my emotions but less in-touch with my better, faster brain.

Is this just standard nicotine addiction stuff? Does this cycle sound familiar to current or former smokers, or is it something unusual? (I.e., no one else has described this sort of phenomenon to me when talking about smoking, so I don't know how representative of typical tobacco use my own experiences are.) If this is familiar, how do I keep my brain working at that higher level (which I enjoy) when I'm first dragging the Marb without descending into the chaos of steps 3-4? Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
This sounds very familiar to me (former smoker). I also tend to go through a period of confusion whenever I quit smoking.

I don't think there's an answer to the second question where your brain feels like it works at a higher level without the nicotine. If there were, we'd probably all be doing it.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:01 PM on February 21, 2013

I would describe myself as a cyclic smoker (although it's been over a year since I last smoked) and I would describe my reactions just like you. It's relaxing, it helps me clear my head, I feel good... and then my car starts to smell, my clothes start to smell, I can't run as well... I quit for good partially because I was at the end of one of these cycles and my car lost its new car smell, and partially because I was dating someone who disliked smoking.

I've talked to people who are more hardcore addicted and I haven't heard any of them experience this. I don't know if it's the propensity to addiction that varies between people or just that some people get into a habit whereas some are more cyclic in their habits. But regardless, this is definitely a thing that people experience.

I think the way to experience this is to find substitute ways to get to that mental state. I definitely get it from exercising. And the occasional smoke on a night out :)
posted by DoubleLune at 8:03 PM on February 21, 2013

That all sounds extremely familiar to me. I was only able to give it away with champix. It's a wonder drug. Good luck to you on your quitting journey!
posted by goo at 8:34 PM on February 21, 2013

Agree with DoubleLune; I could never be a heavy smoker (after 3-4 days of smoking I feel like I have a terrible flu), and I've gone through the same cycle a million times. So far haven't found anything to sharpen my mind the same way, except maybe a managed use of caffeine/coffee (and even that is more like motivation than improved thinking).
posted by stoneandstar at 8:34 PM on February 21, 2013

Sounds familiar. However, the part of you that's longing for the faster, "better" brain is actually the nicotine trying to convince you to smoke again! Don't be fooled. Über brain will come back when you beat the addiction, without the smelliness and shame. (I am a former addict of 8 years, quit for almost 4 and haven't looked back!)
posted by katypickle at 8:49 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

the part of you that's longing for the faster, "better" brain is actually the nicotine trying to convince you to smoke again! Don't be fooled. Über brain will come back

That not entirely true. I am not encouraging anyone to smoke (trying to quit myself) but it is known that nicotine has certain attentional consequences.

It's been some time, but I seem to recall that cigarettes boost attention capacity for short bursts, as well as improve memory recall. That has been thought to be it's co-morbidity with high-performing creative talent – basically, one can smoke all day long and focus their attention in a different manner.

Similarly, I also recall there being a high co-morbidity with ADHD, basically as a self-medication, for it reduces the distress from short-attention spans by... lengthening attention spans.

Finally, when I was studying this, there was just starting to be some evidence of nicotine patches helping to stave off symptoms not altogether unlike dementia in older patients. I seem to recall it had something to do with de-activing the areas of the brain that induced the brain into rest.

It's one of the reasons for the ultra-vivid dreams whilst on the patch – basically, nicotine keeps areas of the brain operating, when normally those areas would slow/shut-down.

Sadly, nicotine has been correlated with improved brain function, and it's not an illusion. It's quite real. One of my professors used to say the following (paraphrased):

All of these drugs – alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, nicotine – do have short-term positive effects. Alcohol can make people much more social. Cocaine opens the brain to new creative possibilities. Marijuana can be very relaxing. Nicotine is a powerful stimulant. There's no denying those effects, and that is why most people use these drugs.

But, there is a cost. Think of it like an automobile engine. You can extract more power out of an engine. Run it hotter. Higher combustion ratios. Cold air. You can do a lot to extract more power. But what happens to the engine's life? It decreases. If you are only going to get a certain amount of power out of an engine over it's useful life – and that's a materials science problem – it makes a big difference how much power you get out of it at once. The more power you get out, the shorter it's life is going to be.

The brain and drugs are the same. Can one modify the functioning of the brain? Sure. Can one use cocaine or nicotine and become more creative? Sure they can. It works. But you always have to stop and think that the brain evolved over a long time to operate in a certain way. Can you modify how it operates? Yes, you can. But just like getting more power out of the engine, there are going to be consequences.

In the case of cocaine, the dopamine system is literally worn-out. They burn it all up. With nicotine, you make the brain run faster at the consequence of pretty much every other organ. Smoking destroys the skin, the lungs, the veins, pretty much everything. The one organ it doesn't destroy is the brain, which probably explains the root of why it's so addictive...

It sounds like you may be communicating how a non-addictive person relates to nicotine. You like the effects, but the habit of smoking is shit. Because the reality is that nicotine is great for brain performance – if you don't mind all the other stuff that comes with it. Addiction. Dependency. Anxiety. (and that's just nicotine, not smoking.)
posted by nickrussell at 9:13 PM on February 21, 2013 [10 favorites]

I'd be willing to guess that #2 & #4 are consequences of #3.
posted by rhizome at 9:20 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

You could try e-cigarettes, which, while they haven't been proven to be safe, are at least much less bad for you and don't smell? It's basically the nicotine without all the tar etc., but, unlike the patch, you can control the dosing like with a cigarette.
posted by vogon_poet at 9:24 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you looked into eCigs/vaping?

After almost 20 years as a light smoker I kicked the habit mostly cold turkey (I had a few pieces of nicotine gum during the first couple weeks). For 6 months or so after I quit, I still felt something akin to the "baseline" state you describe; there was just that little nagging hole in my psyche left from my long years in service to nicotine. Then a friend introduced me to eCigs and they've completely filled that hole. I still get to indulge in a little nicotine (I use very low or no nicotine content eJuice) and enjoy the "mechanics" of smoking (oral fixation, relaxation, time to think, etc.). However, I don't stink, my cardiovascular and dental health are much improved, my senses of taste and smell are better than ever, and, best of all, I have zero interest in tobacco anymore. That's something I couldn't say the previous times I had quit.
posted by maniactown at 9:24 PM on February 21, 2013

Oh dear, how so close to home your story falls. Finally registered on mefi because of your post.

I went through this cycle 5-6 times already in the last 3 years. I love smoking, I love tobacco, indeed for how mentally stimulating it feels and actually acts (for a while) and as a kind of social getaway in the alternate smokers' dimension whenever the sweet, sweet need presents itself. Or simply as the sole companion to one's loneliness when it's late and you can't sleep and your mind is racing. Yet it never takes very long until I start feeling bodily and mentally horrible. You just can't escape 3-4 if you go the smoking way.

I haven't smoked for 3 months now. Everyday, any number of small thing I hear, people I see or situation I envision that explicitly includes or conjugates well with a smoke will rip open this hole in my chest, manifesting itself as an actual physical feeling of emptiness under my sternum.

In the past I would resist these feelings, but one can only resist so much and pitch inflexibility against needs until one breaks. With enough hopelessness and stress at any given time in my life, I would eventually break down in a week or so and run back to the harpy. Indeed it snatches.

Now when I feel the onset of these craving I just allow myself to feel as such and take a deep breath, fill the hole with it and let the feeling pass through me. Some kind of litany against tobacco if you wish, and as I exhale I will actually think to myself something along the lines of "damn would I go for a cigarette right now, yes, I deeply long for one and it's ok to feel that way. Only I am aware of the future consequences and my need for a healthy body and mind to sustain my future creative endeavors is greater than the crave" and let it go. Soon enough the craving will pass without leaving any trace.

The only way I have found to keep my mind as sharp as I would like it to be was to actually become seriously physically active and to cultivate a rewarding creative mindset. I pushed my yoga practice to 4 times a week at home and I do various other physical activities. Replace the habit with another one and make it a healthy one for your sake. I can honestly say that I am now breaking through creatively and productively more than I ever did under tobacco's influence.

Anyway, there's no moral to the story, it sucks, tobacco is bittersweet, it's probably going to stay with you all your life, never vanishing completely whether you stop smoking for good or not. Good luck.
posted by phphph at 9:29 PM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's been some time, but I seem to recall that cigarettes boost attention capacity for short bursts, as well as improve memory recall.

My experience was that clarity and focus came back on their own post quitting/withdrawal albeit after a long period of time. Cigarettes seem to cleverly hijack brain functions so that you never feel right (clear, focused, etc) unless you get a hit of nicotine.

OP, your description rings very true. I got my brain back but it took the better part of a year to feel sharp and clear headed again. Exercise is great for navigating through brain fog. I noticed that coffee became more potent after quitting smoking, too, so I relied on it to get 'focused' for a while.
posted by marimeko at 9:45 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

there's no moral to the story, it sucks, tobacco is bittersweet

posted by nickrussell at 10:41 PM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also bear in mind that nicotine, like any upper, works slightly less well every single time you use it and leaves you slightly worse off afterward.
posted by flabdablet at 10:47 PM on February 21, 2013

Anyway, there's no moral to the story, it sucks, tobacco is bittersweet, it's probably going to stay with you all your life, never vanishing completely whether you stop smoking for good or not.

I want to cheer the OP up by saying that the last part is not true for everyone.

I quit smoking, cold turkey, about...7 (?) years ago. I was not an intermittent smoker, either - when I smoked, I smoked. Like, one before breakfast and two immediately after walking in the door from work. Yet these days, I never ever want a cigarette. Ever. Even when I'm blind drunk/broken-hearted/completely stressed. Hate the smell, taste, sight of the things. It's as if I never smoked.

So don't be worried that tobacco will follow you around for life. It might, it might not.
posted by Salamander at 1:59 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I quit and am still tempted by nicotine but am never tempted to smoke cigarettes. The whole thing seems nasty and too much bother. Someone told me I would feel this way but I didn't believe them.

I have been tempted by the oral methods (gum and lozenges) but my mother used those semi-permanently and they did a lot of damage to her teeth and gums. The e-cigs now, I might look into.
posted by BibiRose at 4:46 AM on February 22, 2013

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