“Quitting smoking is the single most important thing anyone can do to improve their health and decrease their risk of dying,” says Lloyd I. Sederer, M.D., medical director of the New York State Office of Mental Health.
But as former smokers know, fighting the urge to smoke can require almost superhuman mental strength.
According to the U.S. Public Health Service, while medications and nicotine-replacement therapies can help reduce urges and ease temporary withdrawal symptoms, they can’t stop a smoker from lighting up again weeks, months or even years after quitting.
But it doesn’t have to be that hard — there are also psychological tricks that reduce cigarette cravings and overcome the desire to light up.
“Smokers need to realize that the wiring in their brains has changed,” says Saria Carter Saccocio, M.D., chief medical officer of Danville Regional Medical Center in Virginia. “Medication is one part of it, but the mental piece plays into it as well. When we have a craving, our brain’s trying to get us to do something we don’t want to do. Cigarettes trick smokers’ brains into thinking those cigarettes are essential.”
Here are 10 expert tips tips experts that are effective enough to help you outsmart your own brain and stop lighting up…for good.
1. Adjust your attitude.
You won’t be able to push through cigarette cravings until you’ve decided that quitting is something you really want.
“If you’re quitting because your spouse asked you to or someone’s nagging you, it’s not going to last,” says Voelker. “Step 1 is getting your head in the right place.”
That includes changing your point of view to that of a non-smoker, rather than an ex-smoker who’s feeling deprived.
“Once you quit, if in the bottom of your heart you can pity those who still smoke – in the same way you might pity the alcoholic passed out on the bar or the diabetic eating a hot fudge sundae – it gives you the best chance of walking away from smoking for good,” Voelker says.
2. Identify your triggers.
Cigarette cravings tend to be triggered by “cues” or things you associate with smoking.
That could be anything from a person, song or smell to a place (like your car) or a time (such as after a meal), Lieberman says.
To identify what triggers your urge to smoke, you need to be conscious of when you light up, Saccocio adds.
“Many smokers smoke without even realizing it,” she says. They don’t [notice] they light up every time they turn right on Main Street on the way to work.
“When you have a craving, notice where you are and what you’re doing and thinking about,” she adds. Even better, write it down.
One way to avoid your triggers is to shake up your routine by doing things in a different order or adding an activity.
“We coach people to change all their patterns,” says Barry Hummel, Jr., M.D., co-founder of the Quitdoc Research and Education Foundation, a group of physicians dedicated to reducing the U.S. death rate from tobacco use.
For example, make a new habit of brushing your teeth right after you eat. This not only helps you fill the time needed for the craving to pass, it also changes the taste in your mouth.
It takes 25-30 times of successfully doing something differently to break a habit, says Voelker. So you’ll need to remember to brush after meals repeatedly before it becomes second nature.
Try to avoid your most powerful cigarette associations, Sederer suggests. Drinking alcohol, for example, is one of the most common triggers for smokers. So are situations where others smoke.
“Maybe you have to stop going to clubs on Friday nights for a few months,” he advises.
3. Delay yourself.
Cigarette cravings will pass, experts say.
“You think the only way to make the craving go away is to give in to it, but that’s not true,” Lieberman says.
If you manage to delay gratification for as little as 3-5 minutes, the urge will subside, he says.
“The technique is called ‘craving surfing,’ ” Lieberman explains. “It involves recognizing that cravings [come in] waves. Every minute you wait, the intensity goes down.”
4. Get moving.
Exercise is one of the best ways to distract yourself from smoking, Voelker says. It has other benefits too: Quitting smoking often leads to negative mood states and weight gain, and exercise is a powerful weapon against both, he adds.
That’s why the American Lung Association recommends daily workouts for all participants in its tobacco-cessation programs
“Exercise definitely reduces cigarette cravings,” Voelker says. “It also relieves stress, releases endorphins [natural mood-enhancing chemicals] and can help keep you from gaining weight.”
Withdrawal symptoms and cigarette cravings in ex-smokers decreased during exercise and for up to 50 minutes afterward, according to a 2007 review of 12 studies by researchers from the University of Exeter in England. In a 2006 Austrian study, 80% of smokers who combined exercise with nicotine replacement therapy successfully quit. The success rate was only 52% for those who used nicotine replacement alone.