Most interventions that tackle addictions do not work for most of the people most of the time. For example, Simon Chapman & Ross MacKenzie of the University of Sydney have shown that the vast majority of people who quit smoking do so without any kind of assistance and not during a quit smoking programme. This could suggest that people are better off trying to quit without help. I don’t think that is true. I think it shows is that most of the quit programmes (group support, motivational interviewing, hypnosis, nicotine patches etc.) are prone to fail because they focus on a just a small aspect of the addiction.

The downside of addiction is usually very clear-cut. For example, whether you are a smoker or not, I am sure you don’t need to be told about the economic and health costs of smoking. None of the statistics have a positive message for the smoker, and many of the health economic facts impinge on us all. On the positive side, within about 20 minutes of putting the cigarette out blood pressure and pulse comes back down, within a couple of days the nicotine has been flushed out the body, and within about 10 years the additional lung cancer risk a smoker has halved. These are the good messages for the quitter.

But quitting smoking is perceived as tough.  And the would-be quitter is faced with a whole array of potential methods to help them. Add to this all the family and friends who would love them the to be ex-smokers (hence the title of my book Love Not Smoking: Do Something Different, written with Professor Karen Pine).

So what underlines ‘addiction’? Most answers revolve around the chemical addiction process and how the brain of the addict is hijacked by the nicotine or some other chemical(s). This is only a small part of the picture. A much bigger issue for some addicts is their addiction to their fixed views and behavioural habits. Lifestyle and habits can keep a person tightly chained to their addiction.

Professor Karen Pine and I – in our book – have suggested there are a number of core myths that exist in most people’s minds about quitting smoking. Many of the points are relevant to other addictions too. These myths include:

 You have to go cold turkey and need too much willpower

Just as you wouldn’t go off on a trip without making plans, you need to get yourself ready to quit. In Love Not Smoking we suggest a quit date two weeks ahead.  In that time you make adjustments to your life to move it closer to a non-smoking life; these changes are more powerfully than simply ‘cutting down’.

I have previously questioned the power of willpower. Or even whether it exists. Willing yourself to stop smoking is difficult. You can’t remain in a constant state of self-control. But you can change other habits so that you make things easier for yourself, for example avoiding situations that trigger the desire to smoke. This starts to weaken the behavioural addiction and helps to keep you going.

In the two weeks preparation time the would-be quitter can also spot smoking triggers, create some new habits and mix up routines. They can stock up on healthy snacks and nicotine replacement products if they wish. Then if they also surround themselves with positive supporters and get ready to throw out all smoking paraphernalia for good, they’re on their way.

Your body is addicted to nicotine

The physical dependence is not as strong as you think. You’re more addicted to the behavioural habits that go with smoking. Lighting up after a meal, with a coffee or glass of wine, there are many triggers that have hardwired your brain to expect a cigarette. The good news is, when you break those connections the nicotine dependency wanes.

You will be more stressed if you quit because smoking relieves stress

The immense relief you get from a cigarette is not stress relief. It’s a craving being satisfied. There is no evidence that non-smokers are more stressed than smokers, as you’d expect if smoking relieved stress. Doing something else that ‘disrupts’ the craving can relieve stress more effectively than nicotine. That disruptor might be a quick chat, or move from where you are sitting, or pick up a magazine for a minute or two. Addiction itself is a cause of stress.

You will put on weight if you quit

Smoking does alter the body’s metabolism and some people do put weight on when they quit. You may also feel hungrier when you stop. Food will taste better without nicotine too. But that need not lead to eating more. It might mean eating less but finding it tastier. So quitting smoking doesn’t necessarily lead to weight gain. If you follow a behavioural technique that helps you break a range of habits you will be less likely to over-eat. Do Something Different’s Love Not Smoking programme tackles the broader range of habits, as well as those to do with smoking.

You will miss smoking

Many people say they enjoy smoking and that is why they do it. However, the vast majority also say they would rather be non-smokers. For most smoking is a bit like an itch that needs scratching.  When you replace things that remind you of smoking with small positive rewards (flowers instead of the ashtray, sweets in the car instead of cigarettes), not only won’t you miss smoking, like most ex-smokers you’ll find you love not smoking.

Nicotine replacement will get you through

It is not that simple. If nicotine was all there was to smoking addiction, patches would be the simple answer. Some people get some help with nicotine replacement, but many do not. You have to make other changes in your life and not simply rely on nicotine replacement. The best ‘replacement therapy’ is to enrich your lifestyle with new habits, new experiences, new routines. This will ensure you don’t come up against old smoking triggers while, at the same time, creating healthier habits.

You have an addictive personality

Although a popular notion, there is little scientific evidence for the addictive personality. Research shows that only 40-70 per cent of a person’s risk for addiction is genetic. But genetic predisposition does not necessarily lead to behavioural expression. And modern science reveals that, even if a gene is present, it may not be active at the same level all the time. It’s a complicated picture but it suggests that addiction is not inevitable or unavoidable.

You will suffer with withdrawal symptoms

Withdrawing a physical substance from the body will have some effects, but they don’t last for long. You may experience some light-headedness, sleep disturbance, irritability or lapses in concentration. People’s experiences vary but research shows that on average people get no more than six cravings a day, each lasting only a minute and a half. The trick is to have something to do that takes 90-seconds (a puzzle, piece of fruit, glass of water or mental gymnastic) and you’ll get through it.

Giving up is a lonely journey

Make the most of your supportive friends and family because people with support find it easier to give up smoking. Seek out friends and family who would love you to quit. The more you can tell others that you are quitting the better. Make the most of your positive friends and remember that there will be others who will want you to fail for their self-interest.

Quitting can be an invigorating time if you use it to reshape life in a positive way. Change habits for the better and you may be surprised at other unexpected and positive outcomes.

About the Author

Ben C. Fletcher, Ph.D.

Ben C. Fletcher, D.Phil, Oxon, is a professor of psychology, a behavior change expert, and the author of Flex: Do Something Different — How to use the other 9/10ths of your personality.

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