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Proven Strategies to Quit Smoking

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Find Your Smoking Triggers

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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

If you’re a smoker, you know the drill. Finish a meal and you suddenly feel a powerful craving for a cigarette. Get up from your desk to take a break and all at once you want to light up. Certain times of the day, certain places, and even particular foods can spark a strong urge to smoke.

Experts call these triggers. “For long-time smokers, daily life can be filled with triggers,” says Steven Schroeder, MD, director of the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center at the University of California, San Francisco.

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Drinking tea or coffee, sitting down to a cocktail or glass of wine, driving in the car, getting up during intermission at a concert, checking email, feeling bored, talking on the telephone -- all of them can trigger a powerful urge to smoke. Being angry or under stress can trigger a craving to smoke. But even positive feelings of happiness or pleasure can be triggers. 

Learn to Recognize Your Own Smoking Triggers

Triggers make it tough for smokers to quit. But once you recognize your own personal smoking triggers, you can use a few simple strategies to avoid or defuse them before they wear down your resolve. Before your quit date, keep a journal for several days or a week. Use a small notebook that you can easily carry with you. Every time you light a cigarette, record:

  • The time of day
  • How intense your craving feels (on a scale of 1 to 5)
  • What you’re doing at that moment
  • Where you are
  • Who you’re with
  • How you feel (happy, stressed, bored, etc.)

Be as precise in your notes as possible. Keep your journal for at least one weekday and one weekend day, since your routine is likely to be different on those days. Once you’re done, review your journal. Make a list of the most powerful triggers, based on the intensity of your craving. List the triggers that occur most frequently. Note places, people, situations, and moods that set off a craving to smoke.

Defuse Smoking Triggers in Advance

Triggers are a form of conditioned response. If you’re used to smoking a cigarette during a coffee break, for example, you begin to associate even the smell of coffee with smoking.

“But conditioned responses like these can be broken,” says Scott McIntosh, PhD, associate professor of community and preventive medicine at the University of Rochester in New York and director of the Greater Rochester Area Tobacco Cessation Center.

His advice: before your quit date, de-fuse triggers by changing your routines. “If you’re used to smoking in the car, for example, practice driving short distances without smoking. If coffee triggers a craving, practice taking your coffee break without having a cigarette. Have a glass of wine but don’t accompany it with a cigarette. Focus on breaking your own most powerful triggers in advance of quitting.”

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