Find Your Smoking Triggers

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on January 20, 2011
4 min read

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Before your quit date, look over your list of triggers and put a checkmark beside those that you can reasonably avoid. If you have friends you’re used to smoking with, for example, decide in advance not to see them during the first few weeks of quitting. If drinking coffee is a strong trigger for you, switch to tea. If you associate smoking with watching TV, skip television for a couple of weeks and take a brisk walk around the neighborhood instead. If you’re used to lighting up a cigarette when you take the dog for a walk, alter your route into unfamiliar territory.

The more thoroughly you change your usual routine, the easier it will be to steer clear of triggers. Instead of breakfast and a cigarette first thing in the morning, take a short walk around the neighborhood. If you usually step outside to smoke a cigarette during a break at work, do a few simple exercises such as deep knee bends or stretches at your desk instead. Whenever possible, go to places where you can’t smoke, such as libraries, museums, or theaters.

Some situations or feelings can’t be avoided, of course. By acknowledging in advance that they’re likely to spark a craving, you can be better prepared to ride it out. Bring along something else to put in your mouth instead of a cigarette—a mint-flavored toothpick or some carrot sticks, for example. While you’re walking, take deep breaths, focusing on how good the fresh air feels in your lungs. Other useful strategies to ride out a craving include sipping ice-cold water through a straw, taking deep breaths, keeping your hands busy by squeezing a rubber ball or doing a crossword puzzle, or taking a brisk walk.

Remember, each time you resist a trigger and don’t light up, you’ve lessened its power over you. Most cravings only last a few minutes. If you can ride them out, you’ll be one step closer to a lifetime free of nicotine.