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Verified by Psychology Today

Still Smoking? These Strategies Can Help You Quit

Use anchors, tapping, and visual cues to stop quickly and easily.

Key points

  • Approximately 34 million people still smoke in the US, despite the health risks and astronomical cost.
  • Proven psychological techniques can make quitting smoking easier. Your mind and body will respond to visual, verbal, and taste anchors you set.
  • You can motivate yourself to quit smoking by spending the money you saved on a special reward at the end of the process.
OpenClipart-Vectors/Pixabay
Source: OpenClipart-Vectors/Pixabay

If you still smoke cigarettes, you’re in increasingly small company. The number of smokers a few decades ago was about 30 percent of the US population. Compare that to only about 14 percent of adults over 18 who still smoked in 2019, per the CDC.

However, based on our population, this is still about 34 million people. Despite removing cigarette advertising, putting warning labels on packs, observing cancer deaths in other smokers we know, and taxing the per-pack price to astronomical levels, many people (who probably started young) still can’t quit without help.

It’s hard to find a safe place to smoke these days — most beaches, parks, public events, restaurants, and buildings prevent it. Many smokers feel shame or get shamed by people who see them smoking in public. Many want to quit but have tried and failed, repeatedly.

For those of you who started smoking at an early age — because of peer pressure, to keep your weight down, or as a stress reliever — look around you. Are your peers still smoking? Probably not. Is your weight lower than when you started smoking? Probably not. Is your life any less stressful because of your daily cigarette habit? Probably not.

The power of positive self-talk

When it comes to stopping smoking, what we say to ourselves can have an enormously positive impact. Positive self-talk matters when it comes to breaking long-standing habits, especially those that are chemically driven, like cigarettes, alcohol, or unhealthy foods. You can talk yourself into a healthier lifestyle (positive self-talk and positive awareness are foundational parts of many 12-Step programs) and use the power of visual and physical anchors to stop craving cigarettes. Small steps make a difference.

What to expect after you quit smoking

Medical and scientific studies on cigarette addiction suggest that the physical craving for nicotine ends about three days after your last cigarette. At that point, the nicotine receptors are no longer as active in your body. Realize that your biggest fears about stopping smoking — headaches, nausea, tension, anxiety, jitters, shaking hands, sleeplessness — will all be temporary physical conditions. These too shall pass, in a shorter time than you first believe.

The physical discomfort from quitting smoking is only a tiny part of the quitting battle. The psychological craving for cigarettes — like other chemical addictions that attach to our serotonin and dopamine systems, can take up to one year or more to dissipate. In other words, your body stops wanting a cigarette in a few days; your brain wants one for quite a while longer. As such, you have to re-program your brain using distraction techniques that focus on visual, verbal, and physical cues (known as anchors) to get to a level where you no longer care to smoke.

The importance of anchors

Anchors are things we taste, touch, see, hear, and smell. We all have them and there are lots of examples around our lives. Ever smell cologne or perfume that reminds you of someone? Ever hear “our song” on the radio, to signify someone you’re with now or used to date? Ever see a positive or negative image on TV or in a movie, which reminds you of a terrific or horrible time in your life? Ever feel a texture that reminds you of a childhood experience? Ever eat food that reminds you of your grandmother’s kitchen or a favorite family trip? These anchors are memorable. When used properly, can create a new set of neural pathways to help you become a former smoker.

Recommended tools to help you quit smoking

Here are some anchors and tools to help you stop smoking when you ready to make that life-saving, life-improving step:

  • Start by asking yourself, why do you want to quit smoking? These reasons can include better health (the health benefits from stopping start immediately); a recent health scare in yourself or someone you know; the high cost of cigarettes; wanting to avoid being ridiculed by friends, family, or strangers as you stand there smoking on the street; or the realization that all the things you may have started smoking for — relaxation, stress relief, weight control, or to look cool — no longer work.
  • Now ask yourself, who do you want to quit smoking for? This could include your spouse or partner, co-workers, children or grandchildren, or even as a way to win a bet with a friend who challenges you to quit and believes you won’t.
  • Switch to the brand with the lowest tar and nicotine levels and use those “light” cigarettes to taper down until you’re ready to stop. Don’t refer to it as “going cold turkey” or “quitting smoking”; those phrases have a negative connotation. Start telling yourself, “Today I chose to be a non-smoker” or “Today, I am no longer a smoker” once you do finish your final cigarette.
  • Use the color red (the universal color for stopping) as your signal not to want a cigarette. Every time you see the color red, it will remind you to say to yourself or aloud, “I no longer want a cigarette. I no longer need a cigarette. I am now and forever free from wanting to smoke. I have no desire to even hold a cigarette or buy a pack. I have stopped smoking. I am a former smoker.” We see red everywhere: stop signs, red lights, police, fire, and ambulance lights, red curbs, and it all means the same thing: don’t.”
  • Cigarettes are hugely dehydrating. Drink a lot more water when you are weaning off your last cigarettes and after you have stopped. Take a few sips every time you think about having a cigarette; it will give your mouth something to do and help flush the remaining nicotine from your system.
  • Say the phrase “Fresh Air” to yourself or out loud, every time you feel a cool breeze on your face. This could come from your car’s air conditioner, a fan in your workplace, or when stepping outside. Fresh air means healthy, smoke-free oxygen going into your lungs.
  • Tap a part of your body repeatedly when you feel anxious about wanting a cigarette. It could be the side of your knee while you’re sitting in a meeting, the side of your hip while you’re standing talking to someone, or even some part of your face when you’re alone. Tapping, especially on certain key spots, can help relieve short-term anxiety. (Research “tapping cures” to discover some other places to tap.)
  • Your cigarette tobacco may be cured with water that is laced with sugar. This may be why so many smokers gain weight after they stop because they crave carbs and sugary foods. Get some hard candy in flavors you like (those coffee or caramel-flavored drops are tasty) and pop one when you feel the need for a cigarette or a carb.
  • Create an accountability “cue card.” On a small card, write the words “Fresh Air” on one side and this phrase on the other: “Today, tonight, and tomorrow, I am no longer a smoker. I am now a former smoker. I no longer need to smoke.” Repeat these phrases at least five times per day (upon waking up, after meals, and before bed), for the next 30 days. The repletion may drive you crazy but these are words your brain needs to hear.
  • Get an accountability partner, preferably a close friend who used to smoke and doesn’t now (and won’t start back up again). Ask this person to call, text, or email you several times per day in the beginning and then daily after the first tough two weeks. Their messages should provide you with hope, courage, and confidence that you are on the right path to becoming and staying a former smoker.
  • At the end of each week that you have not smoked, take a bold financial step and physically put the money you save on not buying packs of cigarettes into a special “My Vacation” bank account. If we consider that the cost of a pack of cigarettes in Missouri is $4.91 and in New York, it’s $10.47, with all states somewhere in between, then the average price of a pack in the US works out to $6.65. For a pack-a-day smoker, that’s $2,427 per year (about the cost of two plane tickets, hotels, and meals for a week or more in Hawaii) or for a two-pack buyer, it’s $4,788. You can get yourself and your partner a nice Hawaiian vacation with the first number, a wonderful vacation to Europe with the second. Current smokers who say, “I could never save $2400 or $4,700” are not doing the easy math here. Smoking is both deadly and expensive.
  • Use nicotine gum and lozenges if you need them temporarily, but don’t substitute a vape pen for your cigarettes. The oral habit and the ability to blow smoke (water vapor) can lead you back to cigarettes.
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