You just quit smoking. Literally. Five minutes ago, you put out your last cigarette.
How do you get through the next few hours and days, which will be among the toughest in your journey to becoming an ex-smoker? You need practical strategies to help you survive the cravings and nicotine withdrawal, and help you break the psychological addiction to cigarettes.
What Happens When You Stop?
After you quit smoking, a lot of good things happen to your body pretty quickly. Within 20 minutes, your heart rate and blood pressure go down. In 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:
They kick in fast. Research shows that the average smoker starts to feel the symptoms of withdrawal within an hour of putting out their last cigarette. Feelings of anxiety, sadness, and trouble concentrating can appear within the first 3 hours.
It's intense but short, though it might not feel that way at the time. Nicotine withdrawal symptoms usually peak within the first 3 days of quitting, and last for about 2 weeks.
If you make it through those first weeks, it gets a little easier. What helps?
You should start to make plans before you quit. During the week before your "quit day," make the following preparations:
List all the reasons you want to kick the habit. Save them on your phone. Print them out on index cards and stash them where you used to put your cigarettes -- in your purse, in your desk drawer, on your nightstand.
Pay attention to when you smoke, where, and with whom. Then make 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” midmorning with a co-worker? Think of alternatives that will keep your mind and body occupied.
Pick a good quit day. Don’t choose a day that’s in the middle of your most intense month at work, or right before finals, or while a loved one is seriously ill.
After You Quit
So you’ve made your preparations, you’ve thrown away your packs, and you’ve smoked your last cigarette. Now it’s time to act like an ex-smoker. What next?
First, you need to learn to delay the urge. You’ll feel it almost right away. Until the urge fades:
- Take 10 deep breaths, walk to the sink, pour yourself a glass of ice water, and drink it slowly.
- Fix a healthy snack. Something that makes your breath and teeth feel fresh is great, such as carrot sticks or a citrus fruit. Or suck on a peppermint.
- Keep a book with you on a subject you want to learn about. When you feel like you want to smoke, read a few pages while making notes or highlighting passages. Your mind and your hands will be busy.
- Take out your list of reasons why you’re no longer a smoker and read it to yourself. Out loud if you have to.
- Call or text a friend or a family member who supports your efforts to quit smoking. You don’t have to talk to them about smoking or quitting. Just hold the phone in your hand instead of a cigarette, and talk about sports, the weather, or your weekend plans until the craving passes.
- Download a quit smoking app that helps you delay your urges. Try Quit It Lite, which tracks how long you’ve been smoke-free and shows you the money you’ve saved. Next time you want a cigarette, check out your riches instead.
Don’t put yourself in situations that will raise the pressure to smoke. For example:
For a few weeks, don’t go out with friends who smoke. You can still be friends with them. But tell them you’re taking a break while you’re in the early, tough days of quitting and will be back when you’re feeling stronger.
Change your habits. If sitting outside your favorite coffee shop with your morning coffee and a cigarette is your old routine, you might find it almost impossible not to light up there. Instead, have tea or juice or go inside, where smoking is not allowed.
Many people associate alcohol with having a cigarette, so you might want to stay away from happy hour for a few weeks.
Give yourself small rewards for every single day you make it through the first 2 weeks, and bigger ones at the end of week 1 and week 2.
Small rewards might include:
- A new magazine
- A dozen golf balls
- New earrings
- New lipstick or nail polish
- A nice dinner out
- Tickets to a sports event or concert
- An evening at the movies or theater
- A massage or facial
- A weekend away
When You’re Stressed
Many people smoke when they feel anxious, stressed, or depressed. Now that you don’t smoke, how will you handle those feelings?
If smoking was what you did when you were under pressure before, you’ll need other options now.
- Cut yourself plenty of slack. Even if you’ve tried before and started smoking again, remember that it’s possible. Most people have to try several times before they succeed.
- Settle short-term problems in advance. If you can handle any nagging issues that aren’t too big, do it before you quit. Fix that leaky faucet. Clean up the clutter that’s been bugging you. Clear away as many stressful issues as possible.
- Focus your attention. The first few weeks of quitting are the hardest. Don’t try to take on other big issues. You can address long-term problems later, after you’ve made it through the first few weeks.
- Notice your signs of stress. The sooner you deal with stress, the better -- so it doesn’t make you light up. Stress can make you angry, anxious, or sad. You might get headaches or an upset stomach, or cravings for food that’s not good for you.
- Do things you enjoy doing. It might be just the thing to help you relax. Listen to your favorite music. Watch a comedy. Take your dog out for a run. Connect with friends or family. Get outside in nature.
- Get moving. Being active is a great way to handle stress. You’ll get a boost of brain chemicals that help you feel good. Almost any type of exercise helps, and you’ll want to do it regularly. It could become part of your new life as a nonsmoker.
- Practice relaxation. Yoga, deep breathing exercises, and meditation are just a few ways to help you focus on the here and now. It’s a skill that comes in handy when you need to get through the cravings for a cigarette. No one technique works for everyone, so try a few to see what you like.
- Put it in writing. Find a quiet place and spend 15 minutes writing about what’s bugging you. Don’t reread or revise. Just write. Afterward, delete or tear up what you’ve written and toss it away. The act of writing might give you a new perspective.
- Call on a friend. Make a list of the people you can turn to for support and a friendly conversation. Turn to them when you feel like it’s not going so well. Social support really does make a difference.
- Expect tough moments. The first few days of quitting can be really rocky. Almost all ex-smokers have moments when they doubt that they can do it. Remind yourself often: Nicotine withdrawal gets weaker every day that you don’t smoke. Every time you resist lighting up, you’re one step closer to a smoke-free life.
Even when you’re over the hardest first few weeks, expect to hit some rough patches. There will be times when you’ll really want to light up. But you can get through it. Stick with it, and you’ll be an ex-smoker before you know it.