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Find and Beat Your Smoking Triggers

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum on September 28, 2021

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, places, and even some foods can spark a strong urge to smoke.

Experts call these triggers. And there can be a lot of them. They can happen when you:

  • Drink your morning tea or coffee
  • Have a beer, cocktail, or glass of wine
  • Drive
  • Get up during intermission at a show
  • Check your texts or email
  • Feel bored, sad, angry, or stressed
  • Talk on the phone
  • Need a break from work

Even positive feelings of happiness or pleasure can be triggers.

Learn to Spot Your Smoking Triggers

Once you know yours, you can prepare to avoid or manage them.

Before you quit, keep a journal for a few days or a week. Use your smartphone or 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 (with 5 being the most intense)
  • 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. List your most powerful triggers, based on the intensity of your craving. Which triggers happen most often? Note places, people, situations, and moods that set off a craving to smoke.

Some Ways to Outsmart Common Triggers

Coffee

If a cup of joe and a cigarette go hand-in-hand for you, try changing your routine and get coffee somewhere new. Drink it at a new time. Switch to decaf, tea, or hot chocolate for a while. Text, read a magazine, or write to-do lists while you sip, to keep your hands busy.

Work breaks

If you always step outside and smoke with your co-workers, pass on their invites and use your break to relieve stress in other ways such as going for a short walk when you need a few minutes away from work. Breathe in the fresh air and notice how pleasant it smells when you’re not standing in a smoky haze.

Stress

Cigarettes help some people feel calmer, because the chemicals they contain may change the way your brain handles stress. When you feel tense, experiment with other ways to relax. Take 10 slow, deep breaths, being sure to inhale and exhale slowly. Listen to calm, soothing music. Call a friend to vent. Go for a walk. Or squeeze a stress toy to keep your hands busy.

After a meal

If you always light up after dinner, brush your teeth or pop a breath mint right after your meal. With this new tweak to your routine, you’ll expect minty-fresh breath after you eat, instead of a cigarette. Or scrub your pots and pans as soon as you finish eating. When your hands are wet and soapy, you can’t smoke.

Boredom

Some people reach for cigarettes when they have nothing else to do. Instead, have a list of things you want to do and tackle them one by one when there’s a lull in your day. Keep things lying around that will distract you and keep your hands busy: crosswords, sudoku, your knitting. Or go for a walk to change your view for a while.

Driving

If you always smoke when you drive, freshen your car’s air to enjoy the new, smoke-free smell. Stash a supply of hard candies or chewing gum in your glove compartment, so you have something else in your mouth. Sing along with the radio to create a new, healthier car habit.

Bars

This is a tough one. If you’re used to the combination of a drink and a smoke, bars can be an easy place to get derailed, especially because alcohol lowers your determination. Avoid your usual haunts and your smoking friends for a while, because the urge to light up will be too strong. If you choose to drink, go to a smoke-free bar and order something other than your usual beer or cocktail, so the flavor doesn’t beg to mingle with a cigarette.

Sex

If you like to light up to boost the natural high of intimacy, create a new post-sex routine to enhance your heightened mood. Cuddle more. Try pillow talk. Give each other massages. Or try to relax and feel sleepy with a hot bath or shower

Bedtime

If you’re used to having a smoke right before lights out, try a new bedtime routine. You can drink a glass of warm milk or do some gentle yoga. Meditate. Take a hot shower. Listen to calming music. Read a page-turning book. Think about what you’ll do with all of the money that you’re saving by not buying cigarettes.

Plan Ways to Resist Smoking Triggers You Can’t Avoid

You can’t avoid all your triggers, all the time. So get ready for them and have a plan for when they strike.

Bring along something else to put in your mouth instead of a cigarette, such as a mint-flavored toothpick or some carrot sticks. On a walk, take deep breaths and focus on how good the fresh air feels in your lungs. To ride out a craving, you could also sip ice-cold water, take deep breaths, keep your hands busy by squeezing a rubber ball or doing a crossword puzzle, or meditating.

Each time you resist a trigger and don’t light up, you’ve won back some of the power that smoking has over you. Most cravings only last a few minutes. As you ride them out, you’ll be one step closer to a lifetime free of nicotine.

Show Sources

SOURCES: 

Steven Schroeder, MD, director, Smoking Cessation Leadership Center, University of California, San Francisco.

Scott McIntosh, PhD, associate professor of community and preventive medicine, University of Rochester, New York; director, Greater Rochester Area Tobacco Cessation Center.

National Cancer Institute.

American Cancer Society: “Guide to Quitting Smoking.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

QuitNow Canada.

National Cancer Institute: “How to handle withdrawal symptoms and triggers when you decide to quit smoking.”

Smokefree.gov from National Cancer Institute: “Know your smoking triggers,” “How to Manage Cravings.”

QuitDay: “Knowing what to expect: How to avoid triggers.”

Quit and Stay Quit Monday from The Monday Campaigns: “How to conquer smoking triggers.”

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