Quitting Smoking is an Inside Job!

The most commonly asked question in tobacco treatment is, "What's the best way to quit smoking?" The best answer is: "That's not the right question." What most of us really want to know is, "How can I quit for good this time?"

The evidence tells us that Quitting is a Process, Not an Event. Very few of us  quit by simply putting down the death sticks and then willing ourselves to not pick them up again -- though most of us try that approach at least once. Multiple quit attempts using various methods are the norm, not the exception. Why?

The US Public Health Service reviewed  8,700 quit-smoking studies, and declared that smokers enjoyed the best chances of quitting for good when they not only took advantage of quit-medications, but peer and/or professional support as well.1  Why the dual approach? Because tobacco addiction isn't only physical. It's mental and behavioral as well, and interacting with professionals and/or other ex-smokers is the most effective way of getting at the psychological reinforcers of our addiction. When we try to quit by dealing with the physical aspect alone, we're usually tripped up by long-held thoughts and attitudes associated with smoking (which can 'trigger' urges to smoke even years after quitting).

Make Quitting Your Idea

So how can we put together a quit plan that addresses the mental component up front?  One good way is to develop our own reasons for quitting. Most of us first consider quitting smoking because of external motivations--the pleas of spouses or loved ones, health scares, smoke-free workplaces, or increases in cigarette or insurance costs. For us to be best-motivated, it helps to mentally position our quit as our idea.

A simple Pros & Cons list is one way to do this. Ask yourself: What do I like about smoking? Is it a welcome break from work, a reward, or time spent with friends? And what don't I like about it-- the smell, coughing, the expense, the hassle of smoking publicly? List these things so you can compare and contrast. Do your reasons for quitting outweigh reasons to keep smoking? Let your brain play with this list for a few hours/days/weeks; you'll notice your mental picture of smoking changing over time.

Another way of changing how you think about quitting is to imagine a smoke-free life, full of all the possible advantages of quitting. A dramatic improvement in health is one possibility, as is a longer life. But there are other benefits, as well. You could look younger, with fewer wrinkles, softer skin, and shinier hair. You might save a lot of money that would have gone up in smoke, or been spent on treating tobacco-related illness. You could have more stamina and endurance; sleep better; enjoy more tastes and smells; have whiter teeth; increase your self respect; be a better role-model for your children and grandchildren; save your loved ones from second or thirdhand smoke--the list of  great reasons to quit smoking is potentially endless. Try listing as many of these benefits as you can think of, and then ask yourself:What are my 3 BEST reasons for quitting? Write these down, too, and return your thinking to this list whenever you find yourself obsessing about cigarettes in your mind. 

Reframe Your Quit History

Though some of us quit smoking on the first try, most of us have made more than one attempt. We tend to think of such attempts as failures, so it will be helpful for us to reframe our perceptions of previous efforts. Actually, each quit-attempt teaches us something valuable, something we need to know to stay quit for good. This means that the more times we've 'failed' at quitting, the better our odds of succeeding this time!

Your quit-history is your greatest asset, so reflect on these questions, and change how you think about quitting: How did I quit before? What worked, and what didn't? Did I use the chosen quit method as recommended, for as long as recommended? How did I start smoking again? Are there other tools I could have employed that I could use this time? Has anything changed in my life that might make this quit easier or harder?

Do Quit-Medications Help the Mind?

Most of us can't put our lives on hold just because we're quitting smoking.  Quit-meds help us deal with the physical aspects of withdrawal, but they also help us to stay mentally on track, and to be less affected by post-quit smoking obsessions, concentration or memory problems, or the irritation and mental restlessness that accompany tobacco detoxification.

Control Your Self-talk (Or It Will Control You)

Finally, consider taking charge of your thought processes altogether by controlling your self-talk. Self-talk is that conversation you're having with yourself right now, as you read this: I agree with this, I disagree with that, what am I having for lunch, etc. We tend to think of our thoughts as driven by our environment, our emotions, etc, but that scenario has cause and effect reversed. Our thoughts right now become our attitudes tomorrow, which determine our actions the day after, and mold our future next week.

Your tobacco-dependent mind will attempt to self-talk you into abandoning your quit before you start, or to slip/relapse afterward. It'll whisper things like, I don't want to do this now/anymore, or, This is too hard! or, I can have just one. Remember, the addicted brain doesn't  have your best interests at heart; it only wants you smoking again, and it's going to lie to you in your own voice.

Pay attention to what you're saying to yourself. Whenever you catch yourself self-talking the idea of smoking again, or of throwing away your quit, you can literally interrupt that thought. Command yourself to , "Stop the presses!" as you visualize your mental machinery grinding to a halt. Then turn your thinking back to positive things. Remind yourself of the reasons you're quitting; grab that list you made earlier and read it. Affirm positive concepts  like:

  • I don't smoke, no matter what; no matter what, I don't smoke
  • No power on earth can make me smoke
  • If I do give in, how will I feel afterward?
  • I love being a non-smoker!
  • I have all the support I need to stay quit!
  • I quit and can stay quit, regardless of anyone or anything!
  • I am proud to be a non-smoker
  • This, too, shall pass

The more you exercise control of your own thinking, especially regarding smoking and quitting, the less power tobacco will have over your thoughts. Eventually, your mind will stop trying to trick you this way altogether.

Good luck, and KTQ,

Alan Peters, CTTS-M