January 1, 2016

Kicking the habit: How to beat the cravings to smoke

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Here’s how to cope with smoking cravings when they’re at their worst.

If you’re quitting smoking, you already know this is the single best thing you can do for your health. That said, be prepared for cigarette cravings. Nearly all smokers feel them as they withdraw from nicotine.

Common withdrawal symptoms include irritability, anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping and increased appetite. Understandably, any or all of these sensations trigger a strong desire to smoke.

“Craving isn’t always predictable,” says Hilary Tindle, M.D., the William Anderson Spickard, Jr. Chair in Medicine at Vanderbilt and founding director of the Vanderbilt Center for Tobacco, Addictions and Lifestyle. But sometimes they’re very predictable, depending on the situation, she said: “At some time or place, craving gets everybody.”

Don’t try combating cravings with willpower alone. Studies show that most smokers need more than just willpower to quit – and besides, willpower isn’t any fun.

Here’s what you should know about cigarette cravings:

  • The best way to manage cravings is to prevent or reduce them. Nicotine-replacement medications, or prescription drugs designed to help you quit smoking, will help accomplish this.
  • Get rid of cigarettes and things that remind you of them before the cravings start. Don’t keep lighters or ashtrays around, for example.
  • Often, cravings are situational. For example, you may struggle with cravings when you see co-workers head for a smoke break if you’re accustomed to joining them. Or your cravings may only start when you meet friends at a bar. Think in advance of what situations are likely to trigger your cravings, and avoid them as much as possible.
  • Common triggers for cravings: being around other smokers, drinking coffee, drinking alcohol and feeling stressed.
  • Make a list of what will trigger your cravings. For each item on the list, think of things you can do instead of having a cigarette. For example, if a likely trigger is finishing a meal, you might promise yourself to go for a walk immediately after eating.
  • When cravings for nicotine hit, satisfy them by wearing a nicotine-replacement patch, chewing nicotine gum or using nicotine lozenges. All of those contain less nicotine than cigarettes and they break your practice of turning to cigarettes.
  • When you’re tempted to have a cigarette, tell yourself to hold off for 10 or 15 minutes. That gives you time to distract yourself from the craving using the strategies you brainstormed in advance.
  • Some people still experience cigarette cravings up to six months after they quit smoking, though cravings are usually strongest and happen most frequently in the first weeks.

This great list will help you find ways to take your mind off cravings until they subside. To work with a counselor to help you create a plan for quitting, call the Tennessee Tobacco Quitline, 1-800-784-8669, or use it online at tnquitline.org.