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  • Q&A with Australian Health Practitioners

    Tips for a recovering smoking addict?

    Related Topics
    I recently quit smoking but have found it tremendously hard to completely stay away. What activities will help distract me? any other tips?
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  • Dr Jeremy Adams

    Psychologist

    Dr. Jeremy Adams has a multidimensional background that includes a Ph.D. in Sport and Exercise psychology, a clinical postdoctoral fellowship in Chemical Dependency, and a … View Profile

    That's an excellent question but not the easiest one to answer. The problem for many ex smokers is their constant struggle with the urges. Typically, when people feel the urges they try to force them away, to ignore them, or to distract themselves. Unfortunately, these actions can actually make things worse!

    For most of us, emotions and urges feel pretty important - we feel like we need to pay attention to them and that something bad will happen if we don't. We also label many of them as “bad”, including urges to smoke. We assume that we need to struggle against the “bad” urges and emotions. Neurologically, every time we try to repress a particular urge, we end up paying a lot of attention to it, reinforcing the neural “circuit” associated with the urge. By trying to push it away we actually make it stronger.

    The best alternative is to accept that the urges will come whether you want them to or not - it's not something any of us can control. Likewise, the urges themselves are not “bad”, they're simply urges (just like any other sensation or information coming to your mind). The trick is to recognise what's going on and then to deliberately refocus your attention. In the case of an urge to smoke, you can recognise this as a leftover function from your smoking addiction. Technically, you're getting a surge of activity in the nucleus accumbens, resulting in a surge in dopamine levels. When you attend to that urge, the dopamine levels increase, reinforcing the action.

    If you can recognise the urge for what it is - something like “the reward system in my brain has been activated inappropriately” rather than “I need a cigarette” you're half-way there. It allows you to recognise and label the urge correctly, and then to choose to do something else.

    The best “something else” is to refocus your attention to the present moment. You can do this any number of ways, but the easiest is just to take a deep breath, hold it, and then release - noticing the world around you when you do. Each time the urge returns, recognise it, label it appropriately, and then return your attention to the present moment. 

    Sometimes the urge will feel “overwhelming”. There are a couple of tricks to help. First, try and imagine exactly where the urge is in your body and give it a shape, size, colour, texture, etc. Once you can visualise it as a “thing” imagine that the “thing” has as much space around it as you want. Instead of it filling you up, there's room for both of you. You can focus on the present moment and get on with things even though it's still there. Remind yourself that this urge is a byproduct of your brain and that it is temporary.

    One more thing. No one's asking you to “like” the urge or “make peace” with it. Simply recognise it for what it is, and refocus your attention on the current moment. Every time you do that, you're retraining your brain to focus on the things you choose to, rather than the urges.

    If you'd like help with this, you're best of working with a registered psychologist who has been trained in addiction.

  • Grant McKell

    Psychologist

    Grant McKell is a counselling psychologist working in Sydney's inner west with over ten years' experience. He founded HeadsUp Psychology in August, 2011. Having worked in … View Profile

    I might jump in here and answer this question from experience, rather than as a psychologist, as Jeremy has already given some great advice wearing the “psych” hat.
    I quit a number of years ago after a few failed attempts. What was different the last time that I tried to quit was that I found my own personal reason to quit, linked to goals I set for myself. I had found that quitting because I'd promised my wife or my kids didn't really work- it just lead to me sneaking off and smoking in secret.
    What I did in the end was take up running the day I quit smoking. I decided that I wanted to be able to run for 30 minutes without a rest. I wasn't worried about speed or distance at first. But I did know that I wanted to be fitter and to be able to measure my success, so my progress in running wasn't just a measure of how fit I was getting, it was also a measure of success of my quitting.
    I started out by running for one and half minutes and then walking for 30 seconds, doing this for half an hour. I did this five days per week for a week. Then I extended the run to two minutes, then three in successive weeks. By the end of a couple of months, I was able to run for 30 minutes non-stop. And due to my increasing fitness, I was fearful of going back on the smokes, because now I had something tangible to lose- my ability to run. I also got myself an app on my smartphone that tracked my progress and uploaded it to Facebook- a nice little reinforcer for the effort I was putting in.
    This worked for me- it won't work for everyone. But I think the key feature was taking up a new activity and setting goals that were completely incompatible with the behaviour of smoking. So if you can think of a way to do this, it may help.
    Also, a little note of warning- check with your doctor before you start doing any new exercise that you aren't used to doing. Just make sure that you aren't putting yourself at any risk healthwise- get a checkup first and tell your doctor what you're trying to do.
    Good luck!

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