How to kick the habit if you’re a longtime smoker

Addicted to tobacco but finding it difficult to stop? There are good reasons why abandoning cigarettes and other forms of smoking is so hard.

One of the biggest is that nicotine, found in tobacco, can be as addictive as heroin or cocaine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarettes are designed to swiftly deliver nicotine to the brain. Within your brain, nicotine instigates the release of chemicals that induce pleasurable sensations. With repeated nicotine exposure, your brain becomes accustomed to its presence.

Over time, nicotine alters the functioning of your brain, creating a perception that nicotine is necessary for a sense of well-being. So, if you try to quit smoking, your brain becomes agitated. As a result, you may experience feelings of anxiety or distress. Concentration and sleep could become challenging, accompanied by intense cravings to smoke, or an overall sense of discomfort — better known as withdrawal symptoms.

But all hope is not lost. It is absolutely possible to kick cigarettes and other forms of smoking to the curb for good with the right approaches and education.

Giving up smoking can be a particular challenge if you're a longtime smoker. Getty Images/iStockphoto

“Smoking remains the world’s leading cause of preventable death and disease,” says Mario Danek, founder/CTO of Qnovia. “It’s a leading cause of numerous serious health conditions, including lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other types of cancer. By quitting, you significantly reduce your risk of developing these conditions and essentially improve your chances of a healthier future.”

In fact, within just 20 minutes of stopping cigarette smoking, your blood pressure will drop to safer levels, per Dr. Colleen Hanlon, president of Medical Affairs for BrainsWay. She says within a month, your blood circulation will improve, nourishing your muscles and improving your skin. And over the next few months, your lungs will begin to regain healthy function — enabling you to climb stairs, play with your grandkids and explore the outdoors without losing your breath as often.

“You may also find that food tastes better, as your sense of smell returns to normal, and your hair is healthier. You also save lots of money otherwise spent on cigarettes,” Dr. Hanlon adds.

Remember: All those years of smoking represent a serious habit. To break this cycle of addiction, you can adopt proven behavioral strategies.

“It’s important to have a sincere desire to quit and think carefully about your own patterns of use,” suggests Dr. Hanlon. “Some people find it beneficial to create a daily list of the cigarettes they smoke, including the time they smoked and the activity they were doing. Seeing these patterns written down is often a powerful exercise.”

After you identify the triggers for your smoking, try to find tactics to avoid these triggers. For instance, instead of smoking while driving or walking the dog, leave your cigarettes at home and consider singing along with the radio, calling a friend or family member and exploring a new route.

“When you have the urge to smoke, another great strategy is to delay it as much as possible. Tell yourself, ‘OK, I can smoke if I just wait 10 more minutes.’ Then, after 10 minutes, try to distract yourself and engage in other activities like making a to-do list, cooking a meal or working on a project you started,” continues Dr. Hanlon.

An alternative strategy is to choose a specific date to quit smoking and mark it on your calendar.

“Having a target date helps you mentally prepare and increases your commitment to quitting,” says Danek. “Once your quit date is visualized, you’ll need to develop a well-thought-out plan that outlines your strategies, coping mechanisms and support systems. Quitting smoking is hard, so seeking support from your friends, family and colleagues about your decision to quit is an important step.”

Truth is, you may need some extra help to nix nicotine use. That’s where products like over-the-counter nicotine gum, patches and lozenges can come in handy; they still contain the drug, but in a less potent form than found in tobacco products. Each of these provides suggested use timelines, and if the directions are followed properly, have been known to help smokers quit.

“In certain cases, prescription medications are also available to help you quit. I highly recommend you consult your doctor to discuss the challenges of quitting to determine if these medications are right for you,” Dr. Hanlon advises.

Indeed, consulting with your primary care physician or another trusted health care expert is strongly recommended if you are prepared to quit smoking, especially if you are a long-term user, explains Laura Hansen, a national board-certified health and wellness coach.

“They can guide you through the process, recommend smoking cessation products and monitor your progress,” she says.

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