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Surviving Without Smoke: Month 1

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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

You just quit smoking. Literally. Five minutes ago you put out your last cigarette.

Now what?

How do you get through the next few hours and days, which will be among the toughest you’ll experience, in your journey to becoming an ex-smoker?  You need practical strategies to help you survive the nicotine cravings and nicotine withdrawal, and help you break the psychological addiction to cigarettes.

After You Stop Smoking: What’s Happening?

After you quit smoking, a lot of good things happen to your body very quickly. Within just 20 minutes, your heart rate and blood pressure go down. Within 12 hours, the carbon monoxide levels in your body go back to normal. And within a couple of weeks, your circulation improves and you’re not coughing or wheezing as often.

But some pretty unpleasant things happen right away, too. The symptoms of nicotine withdrawal include:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Headache
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Hunger

And they kick in fast. Research has found that the typical smoker begins to feel the symptoms of withdrawal within an hour of putting out his last cigarette. Feelings of anxiety, sadness and difficulty concentrating appear within the first three hours.

These unpleasant -- some people might say intolerable -- symptoms of nicotine withdrawal usually hit a peak within the first three days of quitting, and last for about two weeks.

So before you can stop smoking for good, you have to quit for the first two weeks. After that, it gets a little easier. What can you do?

Be Prepared

You should actually start making plans before you quit, says Coral Arvon, PhD, MFT, LCSW, a behavioral health specialist at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami, who is also a former smoker. During the week before your Quit Day, make the following preparations:

  • Put together a list of all the reasons you want to quit smoking. Print it out on index cards and stash the cards where you used to put your cigarettes -- in your purse, in your desk drawer, in your nightstand.
  • Pay attention to when you smoke, where, and with whom. Then make specific plans for what you can do instead. Do you usually have a cigarette with a cup of coffee in the morning? Do you take a “smoke break” mid-morning with a co-worker? Write down alternatives that will keep your mind and body occupied. Don’t wait until after you’ve quit and the craving strikes!
  • Pick a good “quit day.” We’re all under stress in our busy lives, but some times are more stressful than others. Don’t choose a day to quit smoking that’s in the middle of your most intense month at work, or right before finals, or while a loved one is seriously ill. “Try to quit at a time when you can avoid major stress for at least a week or two,” says Arvon.
  • For one week, gather the contents of your ashtrays. Put them in a jar with a lid, and pour some water on the resulting mess. Seal the jar. We’ll talk about what to do with it later.
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