Cravings for a cigarette are often triggered by specific situations, people or moods. It is important to identify your personal triggers or ‘cues’ and to plan coping strategies for when they occur after you have quit.
Common cues are a cup of coffee, drinking with friends, after meals or when feeling stressed.
Cravings are usually strongest later in the day and evening and lapses are more likely to occur then. It is especially important to have effective coping strategies prepared for these times.
A smoking diary helps you to identify your triggers. Once you have anticipated your challenges, make a list of what you can do instead of smoking when they occur.
Mindfulness can also help to relieve cravings with a simple strategy called ‘urge surfing‘. Instead of fighting the urges, you accept and watch them and they gradually pass.
Mindfulness is widely used to help people relax, improve their mental health and cope better with stress. It can also be used to help smokers quit by relieving cigarette cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is about being aware of the present moment by paying attention to our immediate sensations, thoughts, emotions and actions, and the situation we are in. Making a choice not to have a cigarette involves being able to know and bear the sensations and thoughts in the moment of craving. We can see our responses for what they are: thoughts, feelings, sensations which can be tolerated and not necessarily acted on. This gives us more control over our decision to smoke or not in response.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a powerful strategy to calm the mind, cope with stress and improve self esteem.
Urge surfing. A simple but powerful technique
Urge surfing is a simple mindfulness technique to cope with urges to smoke. Urges are like ocean waves. They are small when they start, grow in size, and then break up and dissipate. You can imagine yourself as a surfer who will ride the wave, staying on top of it until it crests, breaks, and turns into less powerful, foamy surf. The basis of urge surfing is similar to that of many martial arts. In judo, one overpowers an opponent by first going with the force of the attack
Instead of fighting the urge or giving in to it, you step aside and watch it. Pay close attention to the thoughts and bodily sensations you are experiencing as the wave passes. It is empowering to realise that you do not have to automatically give in to the urge to smoke.
With practice, you can learn to ride out even the strongest waves and watch them pass.
Similarly, you can focus on nicotine withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, restlessness and anger. Observe how they feel, where in the body you feel them, watch as they come and go. Accept the feelings rather than fighting them and they will soon pass.
Urge surfing can also be used to help with any addictive behaviour such as gambling, overeating, inappropriate sex or any other destructive impulses.
Smoking cues also respond to quick acting forms of nicotine replacement therapy, such as the nicotine mouth spray, gum, lozenge or inhalator.
In general, behavioural strategies to cope with challenges fall in the following categories:
Distract yourself until it the craving passes:
- Do something else e.g. go for a walk, wash the dishes, do some deep breathing
- Think about something else e.g. refocus on why you want to quit or imagine a relaxing scene
Really difficult triggers like drinking with friends can be hard to cope with, especially in the early stages. It may be best to avoid those situations for 2-3 weeks until you are feeling stronger.
Cravings only last 2-3 minutes on average, although they feel like a lot longer! If you can delay the thought of smoking for 10 minutes, for example, until a certain time or after completion of a task, the craving will almost invariably be gone.
If the pressure is mounting and you think you are going to crack, just leave! Go home, go for a walk, just get out of there!
Change the situation
Smokers learn to associates certain situations with a cigarette. For example, a favourite chair, at a certain time of the day, with a cup of coffee, watching a certain TV program. Watching the TV show in another room at a different time could help to break the association.
Some specific coping tips
- On waking – Have a shower as soon as you get out of bed, clean your teeth, go for a walk. Have a dose of the nicotine mouth spray, which works quickly.
- Coffee – Reduce your coffee intake or change to tea or herbal tea, have orange juice or water. Have your coffee in a different place, where you usually don’t or can’t smoke. Distract yourself by reading the paper or doing Sudoku. Try a different brand of coffee. Use a different cup.
- Alcohol – Avoid alcohol for the first few weeks after quitting or cut down on how much you drink by alternating alcoholic drinks with glasses of water. Change your drink to something you don’t usually have. If it all gets too hard, go home early.
- The smell of smoke – Avoid places where people will be smoking, especially in the first 2 weeks. Spend more time in places where smoking is not allowed to avoid temptation, such as libraries or cinemas.
- Boredom – Keep yourself busy. Make a list of things you can do if you have free time. Take up a new hobby or sport. Keep a book, magazine or crossword puzzle handy. Keep your hands busy with a stress ball. Do some volunteer work or help someone else.
- Stress – Exercise regularly. Learn a relaxation technique, such as deep breathing or meditation. Try breathing deeply through your nose and out through your mouth for 10 breaths. It may help to read a book about how to handle stress or get some professional counselling.
- After a task – Reward yourself with some other activity, such as a short walk, stretching exercises, ring a friend.
- With friends who smoke – See them less for the first few weeks. Have a nicotine lozenge or gum before seeing them. Ask your friends to smoke outside. Engage in more smoke-free activities with smoking friends such as going to a movie. Spend more time with non-smoking friends.
- After dinner – Clean your teeth straight away, clear the table and wash the dishes, go for a walk.
- In the car – Remove the ashtray and lighter. Clean and deodorise the car to remove the smell of smoke. Keep sugar-free gum in the car and chew while you drive instead of smoking. Eat raisins one at a time or take small sips of water. Do not allow other smokers to smoke in your car.
- Break at work – Read a book. Find a quiet spot and do some deep breathing. Go for a short walk in the fresh air.
- Phone calls – Keep a doodle pad next to the phone. Answer with the other hand. Talk on the phone in places where smoking is not permitted.
- Food cravings – try chewing on carrots, pickles, apples, celery, sugarless gum, or hard lollies. Keeping your mouth busy may stop the psychological need to smoke.
General coping strategies
Click here to download a detailed list of general coping strategies from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Canada.