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.
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