We know that smoking is one of the biggest killers; we know how much damage it does, we know it makes our clothes, hair and homes smell bad, yet some of us still smoke. Cigarette packets carry graphic messages warning of the dangers, yet some of us still smoke. We smoke even though we don’t like it, and we comfort ourselves by saying things like, “I can stop any time I like”, or, “I’ll stop in the New Year”.
Sounds familiar? As someone who used to smoke, the battle between wanting to stop smoking and wanting to continue is very familiar. Scare tactics often don’t work, nor does the increasing restriction placed upon smokers. Think of it like this – you will carry on smoking, even if you’re undecided about stopping and even if your desire to smoke is even marginally greater than your desire to stop.
So what makes us want to smoke, even though we know it’s bad for us? The answer seems obvious – because it’s addictive. Specifically, it’s the nicotine in tobacco that is addictive, but what does that mean? To answer that question, you need to understand addiction. Addiction is a three-fold problem: mental, physical and social. It certainly isn’t moral. You know smoking is bad for you, and you feel bad for doing it, and you’re a morally responsible person, but you still smoke. Clearly there’s something else going on and it has nothing to do with being a “bad person”. You are not a bad person. You are addicted. There is a huge difference.
The physical aspect of addiction is that nicotine interferes with the pleasure receptors in our brains: it is thought to trigger the release of dopamine, which makes us feel good. It’s the same chemical that is released when we eat a delicious meal, do something enjoyable or receive good news, for example. So we mentally make the association between smoking and feeling good. The bad news is that nicotine leaves the body very quickly, so we are left craving another cigarette. So why doesn’t everyone get addicted to cigarettes? And why do some people get more addicted than others? That’s a controversial topic, and one that neuroscience hasn’t conclusively answered yet. Some neuroscientists believe that each individual’s genetic makeup predicts the size of the effect that nicotine and other addictive substances will have on the dopamine pathways in their brain. Simply if the effect is small, then the person will not easily become addicted. Conversely, if the effect is large, then the person will become very addicted very quickly. From that perspective, it’s easy to see that addiction to nicotine really isn’t a moral problem – it’s a physical and psychological one. If you’re very addicted to smoking, perhaps it’s just that your body is “wired” that way, and your body and brain have unconsciously made the association between smoking and the release of dopamine. It’s not your fault. But what you do about it is your responsibility, which brings us to the social aspect of addiction.
The third factor in addiction is the social aspect. Smoking is often a social activity, inasmuch as it has a socially significant component. What that means is that smoking can be a bonding activity (e.g. all the smokers standing outside, feeling part of a group, having a chat), or it can be a way of giving yourself a break (e.g. going outside for a cigarette when things get too much and you need a break). These kinds of social associations need to be changed if you are planning to stop smoking.
Overcoming addiction to nicotine, and breaking the social and mental associations between smoking and feeling good can be done, with support and a helpful attitude to yourself.
Here are three useful tips for stopping smoking:
1.Remember – your addiction is physical. You can’t reason with it, talk to it, change it, make it go away. Your body is reacting to nicotine in an addictive way. The only thing you can do is to stop putting nicotine into your body. Your body will eventually adjust, and the physical component of addiction to nicotine will cease – until you put nicotine into your body again and re-start the addiction process.
2.When the cravings come, “make friends” with them. That means sitting with the craving until it passes, noticing it, acknowledging it and, most importantly, remember that it is just a feeling. It will go away. You don’t have to act on it. Eventually those cravings will go away completely. There are many support groups to help you through the cravings. Perhaps you can ask your friends and family for support too.
3.Change your language around smoking. Instead of saying “I’m giving up smoking”, say “I don’t smoke”. Try saying those two sentences out loud. Be mindful of how each one feels different.
There is plenty of support available if you want to stop smoking. Here are a few links you might find helpful:
NHS Stoptober website: https://stoptober.smokefree.nhs.uk/
The #stoptober hashtag on Twitter: https://twitter.com/stoptober
Stoptober on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/stoptober
NHS Smokefree page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NHSSmokefree
The Stoptober challenge on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/stoptoberchallenge
You might also find counselling helpful in stopping smoking. Just a few sessions can be all that’s required to help you become free of your addiction.
8th October 2015