My little sister and little brother are eight years apart. In those intervening years, my mother picked up a pretty serious smoking habit. I can remember the heavy stone ashtrays she had in the center of every table, and many of our family photos from that time feature my mom holding a cigarette. When she discovered she was pregnant with my little brother, she knew she had to quit smoking immediately. To hear my mom tell the story (that “little brother” of mine is now 22), her approach was to lock herself in her bedroom for an entire weekend. While in there, she says all she did was sleep and cry. So, it’s maybe a little dramatic, but that’s one way to approach quitting.
I am proud to say that my mom has not had a cigarette in 23 years now, and I hope that you will be able to say that one day too. While your method of quitting might be a little less severe (Or hey! Maybe more severe, depending on your particular circumstance.), there are still going to be side effects you should be aware of.
A Little About Anecdotes
In case my intro wasn’t enough of a giveaway, I have never been a smoker. As a result, I obviously can’t relate to what you must be going through. What I did instead to prepare for this post was talk to five or six of my friends who have recently (or not so recently) quit, and asked them how they felt during the process. If they had any tricks, stories or revelations to share, they let me know, and I will relay them in the sections below.
Whether you are a long time smoker or just trying to quit after a relatively short-term habit, chances are you have heard about nicotine. This is the addictive chemical present in most tobacco products, and more then likely, the cause of why you are feeling so miserable right now. While the specific symptoms and duration of nicotine withdrawal will be different for each person, here is a list of the symptoms you can expect.
- Feelings of sadness or depression (these feelings may be strong at times)
- Difficulty falling asleep, or staying asleep
- Feeling irritable, on edge, or overly sensitive
- Restlessness, or an inability to sit still (this may be especially difficult if you are in school)
- Difficulty maintaining your train of thought, trouble concentrating or confusion.
- Sudden onset of hunger, eating out of “boredom”, or weight gain from mindless eating.
- Slower heart rate, even when exercising.
These symptoms can leave you feeling worn out and frustrated, but there are two bits of good news. First, these symptoms are manageable. Thousands of people have been through this before, and succeeded. Second, these symptoms will gradually become less severe over time. Every day that you can remain smoke free, will feel better than the day before.
Intense Physical Cravings
Dropping a habit is hard. If it were easy, we wouldn’t call them “habits” in the first place. Much of what makes smoking so addictive is the chemical ingredients, but there are several other aspects of smoking that can be just as hard to leave behind.
A friend of mine told me that she began smoking in the first place when she realized that smokers got to take breaks at work more frequently than non smokers. When she decided to quit, part of what she missed the most were those five minute chances to get away from the job. She missed being outside, she missed the quiet, and she missed the chance to catch up on texts without being bothered. This was an aspect of quitting she hadn’t expected, and one she had to find ways of coping with.
Another thing some former smokers grapple with is the hand to mouth motions, and the satisfying feelings that come along with the nicotine. It can be just as important to address these physical wants, if you are going to quit successfully. One friend of mine has found great success using e-cigarettes. They do contain nicotine, while also allowing him to continue the familiar motions of a cigarette smoker. Another friend of mine used jellybeans to satisfy the need to continually bring her hand up to her mouth. It is likely that you may need an activity like this to help bridge the gap between being a smoker and a non smoker.
Nicotine is an appetite suppressant, and when it suddenly goes away, you are likely to have a sudden onset of what feels like extreme hunger. Eating also helps scratch that oral fixation which comes along with smoking, so there may be much more food in your life than there was when you were a smoker. Obviously, this may lead to some weight gain. The fatigue you feel is probably going to make you want to avoid any exercise as well, so that may exacerbate things.
One of the problems some smokers face when quitting is the fear of becoming “fat”. At least one of my friends was encouraged to begin smoking in the first place to help make dieting easier. He has struggled on and off a bit with weight gain in his adult life, and when someone presented smoking to him as an “easy” weight loss aid, he picked up the habit. Hindsight being 20/20, he now sees that all he did was swap out a tendency to occasionally overeat, with an addiction, and neither option was healthy. His quitting scenario was a little rough in that regard. He had to deal with all the withdrawal symptoms, and mentally reconcile the weight gain as well.
Here’s the thing though – you should still quit. Just look at my friend. Now that he has been smoke free for a year, his weight has stabilized. What’s more, he was able to channel some of his nervous energy in the beginning into learning how to cook (and therefore eat healthier). Also, since his lungs have had a chance to clear up, he is able to exercise regularly. It was a bumpy year, but he is much healthier now that he quit.
You may not have realized this when smoking was a part of your life, but a lot of what you did with your free time was “smoke”. Even if you were not that heavy of a smoker, chances are, if there was a lull in your day, you would grab a cigarette and head outside. When you quit, those lulls in your day suddenly become more noticeable.
I don’t think any smoker would list smoking as a “hobby”, but as far as your brain is concerned, smoking IS almost exactly the same as a hobby. That time may have to be filled with something else to help keep your mind off the cigarettes. My uncle began taking his dog for frequent, short walks as a means of filling the time he used to spend smoking. Another friend of mine would grab a sketch book and head outside or over to a window. If you can throw yourself into something that requires either physical movement or concentration (or both!), it seems like the cravings take a back seat.
Like I mentioned before, I have never been a smoker. So while I might not be able to tell you anything from direct experience, but try letting Brigitte Najjar, a Certified Professional Life Coach and Wellness Coach walk you through this in her class “The Neuroscience of Habits“.