Decided to quit smoking? Good for you! Want to double your odds of never lighting up again? Use this guide to stomp out your habit once and for all.
Why you should think about quitting smoking
First, it’s a gateway to disease. Since it puts a strain on your cardiovascular system, you’re more at risk for those types of diseases, which are the leading cause of death worldwide. Think: heart disease and strokes. There are myriad ways smoking negatively impacts the body, from bad breath to gum disease and even infertility.
This step-by-step guide, backed by science, shows you what to be prepared for when you quit smoking, along with some tips to help.
Step One: Set A Date
According to the National Council Against Smoking, it’s important to set a date to quit so you can mentally and emotionally prepare for it. The good news: for women, picking the day is easy.
Why? US researchers found that women who quit smoking during the first half of their menstrual cycle may have the edge over those who stop during the second half. In the study, tobacco withdrawal symptoms were less severe for the women who quit between days one and 14 of their cycle, compared to those who quit between day 14 and the start of their next period.
Do it! Track your cycle and mark the date on your calendar. Tell your friends, family and colleagues when the big day is so they can encourage you to stick to it.
Step Two: Clean House
As a smoker, you’re never alone. The strong scent of tobacco follows you in clothes, ashtrays, even curtains – but if you’re serious about quitting, you can’t have it hanging around.
Why? Studies show that when exposed to familiar smoking visuals, parts of the brain like the amygdala activate craving responses. “Addictive behaviours become associated with cues in one’s environment. These cues then act as triggers, which cause cravings,” explains Candice Garrun, a mental health therapist and founder of the website Addictionology.co.za. “Don’t put yourself in situations that trigger you! If you hang out at a barber’s shop often enough, you will eventually get a haircut.”
Do it! Tidy up. Throw out all smoking paraphernalia like ashtrays and lighters. Clean your clothes, carpets, curtains and bedding. This strategy helped 30-year-old Marilize, who has been smoke-free for two years after reading The Easy Way To Stop Smoking by Allan Carr. “We cleaned out the house! The book guides you through the whole process,” she says. “After a while, smoking began to gross me out – the smell and everything about it.”
Step Three: Get A Hobby
Make it something you can do as quickly as lighting up and turn to it when you’re tempted.
Why? Taking up a new pastime will help channel your thoughts and fill the void that smoking once occupied.
“Habits actually change your brain in ways that can bring relief from cravings and get you started on a path to joy and hope,” says Joburg-based clinical psychologist Elizabeth Cambanis, who has worked with patients who struggle with chemical and behavioural addiction. WH reader Chantelle used this method to kick the habit two years ago. “I found a new hobby. I now fill my time with exercise and baking – and yes, I did gain some weight. But it’s worth it.”
Do it! Keep your hands busy with knitting, painting or playing a musical instrument. Not your pace? Engage in activities where you can’t smoke, like riding a bike or swimming. Moderate and vigorous exercise will help reduce cigarette cravings and stave them off for longer.
Step Four: Control Your Triggers
To avoid a relapse, it’s vital to keep your smoke triggers in check – specific people, places or emotions that make you want to smoke.
Why? The longer you’ve smoked, the stronger the connections are between these triggers and your urges. For on-off smoker Thokozile (29), it’s a TV show. “I still sigh with longing when I watch old episodes of Sex and the City,” she says. “I quit for months – even up to a year – but when I watch SJP I often think, ‘It’s been long enough, I’ve done well’.” Triggers may include being around other smokers, feeling stressed or excited, drinking coffee or tea, or enjoying a meal. You can’t always avoid trigger situations, but it’s important to recognise the thoughts you have around smoking because acknowledging them can help you change your behaviour, explains Cambanis.
Do it! Change your routine. Take note of how you feel just before you smoke and identify what made you light up. Being conscious of these things will help you remove your trigger. Coffee time? Have a glass of water instead.
Step Five: Prepare For Withdrawal
The physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal are rough, but not life-threatening. Still, if you’re not prepared, they may be just awful enough to weaken your resolve.
Why? Because smoking’s addictive. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA, addiction to nicotine occurs quickly and is difficult to shake. Nicotine stimulates the reward pathways of your brain, prompting pleasant, happy feelings – and making quitting tough. “The first few weeks are the hardest,” says Cambanis. “If you’re feeling nauseated, any carbonated beverage should help and nausea only lasts a week or two.” A third of ex-smokers report headaches – often due to changing brain oxygen levels, according to Cambanis. Hang in there – they do pass in time.
Do it! “Ensure you get more sleep, stretch, or practise deep breathing and relaxation techniques,” suggests Cambanis. Quitting smoking happens one minute, one hour and one day at a time. Don’t think about the long-term.
Step Six: Gather Your Support Group
Rally support from a close friend or family member.
Why? Friends can talk you through difficult situations. The first seven to 10 days are the toughest and smokers who relapse typically do so within the first three months. Counsellors can help you identify your triggers and determine what strategy is most likely to work for you. “Sadly, few people seek professional help and more frequently try to quit on their own. It’s very hard to do it alone and you don’t have to,” says Garrun. Plus, a meta-analysis found that counselling resulted in higher rates of smoking cessation.
Do it! Get help. WH reader Joanne did – and succeeded: “I stopped after 10 years using a programme called Smoke Enders. It’s been five years and I’m still smoke-free.” Also, reinforce your success with rewards. This is another strategy that helped Marilize. “I made myself a deal that I could use the money I used to spend on cigarettes on magazines. What a joy!”