9 Common Smoking Triggers and How to Beat Them

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on November 11, 2020

When you chose to quit smoking, you knew that your body would still crave nicotine for a while, so you likely prepared yourself for those urges. But what you may not have bargained for are the strong feelings that arise when you find yourself in certain situations, around certain people, or at certain times of the day.

You can’t help but want to smoke, simply because you’ve always smoked before at those times. Habits are hard to break. These situations are known as your smoking "triggers."

It’s easier to quit when you plot out ways to make your triggers lose their power over you. The best way to do this is to expect them to come up, and then have something else planned to distract yourself.

With practice, you can make your triggers vanish, like a cloud of unwanted smoke. These are common triggers for smokers (in no particular order), along with ways for you to stop wanting to light up in each situation:

1. Coffee

For many, having that cup of joe and a cigarette go hand-in-hand. Tasting coffee may make you want to smoke. Derail your trigger: Change 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.

2. Work Breaks

If you always step outside and smoke with your co-workers, you might feel like lighting up when it’s time for your usual cigarette break. Derail your trigger: Decline when your friends invite you out for a smoke break. Even if you don’t light up with them, you’ll still have the urge to, which can hurt your resolve. If you always enjoyed taking a break outside, go 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.

3. Stress

Cigarettes help some people feel calmer, because the chemicals they contain may change the way your brain handles stress. When you feel tense, you may want to smoke to relax. Derail your trigger: There are plenty of ways to relax without lighting up. 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.

4. After a Meal

Many people smoke after they finish eating. If you always light up after dinner, you’ll likely want a cigarette as soon as you’ve cleared your dishes from the table. Derail your trigger: 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.

5. Boredom

Some people reach for cigarettes when they have nothing else to do. This mindless habit may be hard to break. Derail your trigger: Make your own fun so you won’t feel bored. 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 out for a walk to change your view for a while.

6. Driving

If you always smoke when you drive, being in your car might make you want to light up. Derail your trigger: Freshen your car’s air and you’ll 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.

7. Bars

For many people, beer and cigarettes go together. You may find it hard to have one without the other. Derail your trigger: 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.

8. Sex

After the natural high of sex, many people light up to boost the feeling. Derail your trigger: 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.

9. Bedtime

The last thing many people do before they go to sleep is smoke. You can quit this habit, too. Derail your trigger: Try a new bedtime routine: Drink a glass of warm milk. Do 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.

WebMD Medical Reference



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