-By A. Scott Roberts
M.S. Rehabilitation Counseling
Smoking isn't just a bad habit. It's an addiction. Smokers smoke because they believe it is doing something for them. For some, it relieves stress and anxiety. For others, it boosts social confidence. But what if smoking really isn't doing anything for you. What if the reasons smokers continue to smoke, are the very things smoking PROFOUNDLY worsens?
Tip 1: Smoking causes false perceptions
Most people smoke to calm their nerves or relieve tension and stress. But when you take that puff, your heart rate actually goes up and it puts your brain into a panicky state, activating the amygdala (the "fear center" of the brain). Smoking actually feeds anxiety, stress and irritability, it doesn't cure it at all. The EMOTIONAL payoff of smoking right now is always greater than the the perceived negative consequences of the future.
An addicted individual undergoes what researchers call "toxic learning" because of the misconceptions smokers have about smoking. Just like any other addiction, smoking spikes chemicals in the brain. The main chemical spiked from nicotine is dopamine. Dopamine is not just the "feel good" chemical, but also the KEY neurotransmitter in memory and motivation. Smokers build a life around this perceived world of smoking. It becomes apart of them just as eating and sleeping. But the perceptions a smoker has about smoking is false and based on false perceptions.1
Tip 2: Smoking is compulsive
When you don't have your smoke, you RUMINATE over it, you crave it, you obsess about it. Intrusive thoughts to smoke interrupt your life. Those powerful thoughts and urges are quickly diminished by smoking. A respite obtained from smoking feeds the assumption that smoking is doing something for you. There are many people who want to quit and earnestly try to quit, but it often results in failure.
The reason is because common methods are not backed by sufficient data or evidence. Scientists and researchers repeatedly find that the most common attempts to quit through quitting smoking apps, counseling, 12 step programs, medications and even nicotine replacement therapy has dismally low success rates.2 Isn't it about time to use evidence-backed techniques?
So what are these evidence-backed ways to quit smoking? They are methods that address the desire, not the behavior. Addressing the biochemical issue, getting the brain out of habit loops and using proper coping skills to manage cravings and urges is most effective.
Tip 3: Urges for cigarettes are false messages
Most smokers react in a panic when they feel an urge or craving coming on. The urge tells them that they need to do something about it right away! But the thing about urges and cravings for cigarettes is that they are really false messages. You do not have to ACT on them. They are not real needs, although they sure feel like it. A craving comes from the limbic system in the brain. They appear incredibly strong and may seem to come out of no where. This is because the limbic system is much denser than other brain structures and developed before the higher-functioning part of the brain. It also works on a subconscious level.
This limbic system is tied to the autonomic nervous system and controls the beating of our hearts and the blinking of our eye lids. We do not control these things, they automatically happen. Likewise, we cannot control the urges the brain send for a smoke. But we CAN choose how to react to them. By properly reacting to urges and cravings, they diminish quickly.
Tip 4: gain a correct understanding of urges
Cravings and urges are not bad in and of themselves. They help us to survive. They tell us when to eat, drink and sleep. They are natural. But what happens when you smoke, is that the brain starts to spike chemicals at UNNATURAL levels. Smoking activates the brain's motivational-incentive system, the very system that developed in our brains to help us survive, but smoking is doing just the opposite. It is killing us.
When the "reward" center is stimulated, the built in motivational-system spikes chemicals reinforcing the organism to repeat that behavior. For example, if we go too long without food, our brain sends strong signals telling us we MUST eat. Similarly, smokers experience these cravings as if they are needing to fill a void, such as hunger. When it comes to smoking, there is no survival value.
Our brain tells us that we need to have a smoke, but you really don't. Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist discovered that when he rang a bell before giving a dog food, after a few repetitions, the dog would start to salivate at the ringing of the bell. The bell became a "conditioned" stimulus. The bell was a "cue" for the dog, telling the dog "I'm getting food!" But the bell didn't help the dog survive, the FOOD did. Similarly, the cigarette "cues" a smoker that he is going to start receiving a reward.
The brain actually spikes dopamine at the anticipation of receiving a reward. It gives you a primer or a piece of the drug itself before you actually get there.2 This is why you are having that intense craving. Quitting smoking can be tough, but the best ways to quit smoking are ways that address the desire. Not the behavior. You need to learn how to MANAGE cravings and urges properly.
Tip 5: Urge surf the cravings and urges.
Urge surfing is an evidence-backed technique that has shown to diminish cravings and urges. When you get that urge to smoke, imagine it as a wave that builds up slowly, hits peak and then crashes on the sand.
What this means is that when you have a craving or urge for that cigarette, step out of the urges path and let it pass. Observe the wave and craving as it builds. Observe it like a CURIOUS scientist without getting caught up in it. In your mind's eye, stand back and gain a third person perspective. Just observe, do not react. What you may soon find is that the craving or urge is weakening.
Try to follow the urge all the way through as it builds up, hits it's highest and then slowly diminishes. It is like a passing wave that you ride out. It doesn't last. The video here explains more.
-A. Scott Roberts,
M.S. Rehabilitation Counseling