Autopilot And Smoking Relapse

Have you ever found yourself smoking a cigarette 'out of nowhere' when you had a good stretch of success behind you? If so, welcome to the autopilot zone! You can end up on autopilot when quitting smoking, stopping drinking, or working through other lifelong addictive behavioral patterns.   

This experience can create a sense of fear and lack of control. How will you ever quit if you end up back at square one without knowing when, how or why it happened? Great question! Autopilot can take you places you don't want to go. Let's look at the process, so you can move from that all too familiar space of  'What happened?' and back into the driver's seat.

A Red Flag

Be alert as your subconscious begins playing old smoking tapes in the background! You may have a passing thought of smoking when you see an ashtray or an old smoking buddy. You may start reminiscing about smoking; even think you smell or taste it. You may not even register you are having these thoughts, or you may wonder where that thought came from and go about your day.

  • TIP: This is the first red flag that smoking has entered your radar. It is not a bad thing, and random thoughts of smoking are quite common long after a person quits. Reaffirm your quit. Acknowledge these thoughts! "I am aware I have had smoking thoughts, and I no longer smoke and have no interest in ever smoking again."  

Addicted Mind  

Justification begins! This is where those ignored random thoughts grow into self talk about smoking. Examples:"It has been so long I can have just one...No one cares if I quit, what difference does it make? ...I deserve a reward for ___________." And so on until you start subconsciously planning to smoke.

  • TIP: Recognize when you begin justifying smoking, as this puts you on the doorstep of relapse! Prepare an index card with statements and facts that counter your personal justifications, and read it out loud when you start slipping towards smoking. Doing so can keep you on track. Examples: "Have I ever had 'just one'? How has that worked out for me in the past? I love my quit, I am going to honor it How will I feel if I do something else instead right now?" You can also use self talk to tell your addicted mind "I am not falling for this, I know the truth!" or whatever works for you. 

Critical Stage  

At this point, autopilot is engaged. You have lost all conscious awareness of your quit, how long you have been quit, how far you have come, what your quit means to you or how you will feel after you smoke. You have entered the autopilot zone, and your hand is moving towards the cigarette. There may be an actually physical sensation of mental disconnect, a "What the hell, I am going for it" as another part of you is saying "What are you doing?!"  

  • TIP:  Recognize you are entering the zone. Stop Everything. Break autopilot by staring at your hand, as in really stare at it.  It is reaching for a cigarette! YOU are reaching for a cigarette! You know on some level you do not want to relapse. Find that place by asking your self "What am I feeling right now?  In what ways am I justifying this action is alright? What is the truth about that? What else can I do right at this very minute to get away from here?" 

The Choice  

This is your wake up call. You are now actively choosing what to do next. You physically cannot relapse if your hand does not make contact with a cigarette! What are you going to do? Accepting that whatever comes next is your choice builds the foundation for your forever quit! Before you do anything, write down three reasons for your actions.

If you choose not to smoke:

  • You successfully recognized your personal signs of relapse, and are navigating them.
  • You successfully broke autopilot by learning to stay in the moment, and recognize danger signs
  • You made a conscious choice. By choosing not to smoke, you have reaffirmed your commitment to your quit, and this new habit is settling firmly into place. Congrats!  
  • You identified three awesome motivations to help keep your quit going strong.

If you choose to smoke anyway:

  • You successfully recognized your personal signs of relapse, and need to continue practicing the above tips to help you navigate your quit process.
  • You successfully broke autopilot by learning to stay in the moment, and recognize danger signs.
  • You made a conscious choice. By choosing to smoke, you can now choose Not to smoke; your awareness is growing.  
  • You identified three justifications or triggers you need to plan ahead for. 


This is when a new, conscious tape begins playing in the foreground.  By recognizing the signs, you can hear those old tapes start to play, and know it is time to gear up and take charge. You will be able to navigate justifications and steer your thoughts away from the critical stage. As a result, you gain confidence, control and the power of choice! 

These steps help train your mind to stay in the moment and choose behaviors you prefer, keep those behaviors going long term, and replace your old habits once and for all with all the healthy new ones you desire.

Stay focused, and KTQ!

Vikki CTTS-M 

Master Certified Tobacco Treatment Specialist