Break the habits that stop you quitting

Jennifer McCarthy
Thursday, September 9, 2010
Image: Getty

You've passed the biggest hurdle, you've tossed away your last packet of cigarettes with a fanfare and a flourish and you're feeling good. All's going well — that is, until you meet a friend for drinks that evening.

You've had no thoughts of smoking all day. You've even walked past the huddle of nicotine addicts at the entrance to your office building with a wry smile.

So why now, halfway through your chardonnay, do you suddenly look at anyone with a cigarette as though they're your new best friend?

The particular associations you give to the occasions when you smoke can be the last test of your willpower. If you read British quit guru Allan Carr's book, Easy Way to Stop Smoking, it will tell you that nicotine actually leaves your body within about 48 hours from your last cigarette. So why the cravings?

John Gregory, clinical manager of Quitline NSW, says that you to learn very quickly to associate one stimulus with another. Seven seconds after lighting a cigarette, nicotine is absorbed by the brain, which releases the feel-good hormone, dopamine.

"This Pavlovian conditioning creates a strong association between stimulants such as coffee or beer and cigarettes," Gregory says. "Once you have the coffee, your body is preparing itself for the cigarette."

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Ian Ferreter, manager of Quitline Victoria, says that the addiction to smoking has three aspects to it. These aspects work in combination, which is why it can be so much harder to resist the temptation for a cigarette under certain circumstances.

  1. Physical: Your brain chemistry has changed so your brain now craves nicotine.
  2. Habitual: If you smoke when you're on the phone, you hang up and extinguish the cigarette; the phone rings, you light up again.
  3. Emotional: Boredom is a strong emotion linked to smoking as it passes the time. But any sort of emotion can remind you of smoking. Drinking with friends makes you feel good, so you associate that good feeling with having a cigarette when you drink.

Denise Sullivan, tobacco programs director at the Cancer Council in Western Australia, says that it's often a shock for first-time quitters to realise they associate smoking with certain individuals or circumstances.

"Smoking isn't just about nicotine dependency. People underestimate the psycho-social connection to smoking," Sullivan says.

"The Cancer Council advises quitters to keep a diary to indicate when they smoke, under what circumstances and who with and then to learn ways to cope with the emotions — both good and bad — that relate to smoking.

"Learning to manage stress better will help. When you're stressed and go for a ciggie break, you usually just need the time out, not the cigarette." Gregory advises that in order to deal with these sorts of cravings you need to be aware of the association then delay the response.

"This takes perseverance," Gregory says. "It takes about five to 10 minutes for the urge for a cigarette to pass, but if you do it a few times the weaker that association will become."

"Every time you make a quit attempt, you learn something," Ferreter says. "Instead of thinking, 'I've failed', look at your experience and think, 'What did I learn? What worked for me?'"

Phone the Quitline on 13 QUIT (137 484) and talk to an advisor to help you develop your own set of strategies. A personal plan is tailored especially to meet your needs. You may make lots of mistakes along the way, but don't give up on giving up.

Have your say: do you have the urge to have a smoke when you have a drink?

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