Stopping Smoking On Your Own: Tips and Tricks

Smoking was the twentieth century’s badge of adulthood. At one point, three quarters of the population of the United Kingdom were smokers. Now it’s down to a quarter. Cigarettes are going the way of bowler hats and leaded petrol.

It’s happening because people are stopping smoking in droves. Most of them are doing it without any assistance: NHS clinics, hypnotherapists, Allen Carr and co. account for only a small proportion of the ongoing smoking cull.

So the chances are that anyone reading this who is considering moving on from this iconic habit has it in mind to go it alone. Perhaps some of what happens will make life easier – or at least clearer.

If you haven’t done so already, you might want to read my earlier articles on the subject here and here.

Belief and Stopping Smoking
Stopping smokers are liable to experience something akin to a reversal of the placebo effect. Most smokers believe that stopping will be hard to do. That, on its own, clear of any other factors, will make stopping more difficult than it need be.

It’s not a daft thing to believe. If you’ve already had a series of “failed” attempts to stop smoking, or if you’ve watched friends and colleagues climbing walls in the first days after stopping, or if you’ve watched the UK government’s spectacularly unhelpful “don’t give up on giving up” advertising campaign, then “hard” might seem like a fair summary of the situation.

But believing that stopping is hard brings its own baggage.

I can tell you now that stopping smoking does not change the world you live in very much. It’s the same stressful, neurotic, randomly dangerous place, and non-smokers are equally acquainted with grief. Stopping smoking doesn’t lead you to sunlit uplands.

When you stop smoking, you are just going to have to deal with life in a different way. You’re still going to have to deal with it. And in those first few days, life is going to come at you from all directions. What is going on will have nothing to do with whether you’re smoking or not, but the chances are that because you believe stopping smoking is difficult, you are going to attribute every last irritation and loss of temper and low feeling and hunger pang and so forth to the absence of cigarettes in your life. You’ll be looking out for these feelings too. It’s like one of those cognitive exercises: look around the room for something coloured red, only this time, you’re scanning the environment for the things that get your goat.

If you expect to feel bad, and are going to attribute that feeling bad to cigarettes, you’re going to have a worse time than you really need to.

So what I suggest is that you make a deal with yourself before stopping. Take it on board that the lack of cigarettes does not account for all of your mood (let’s agree that it’s partly responsible, just out of respect for common sense). Assume that part of what you’re experiencing is just life. The rest – that part you are attributing to cigarettes – is that grand dark night of the soul that men and women who have never smoked will never get to experience, outstare and outlast, that time under mental and emotional fire that stopping smokers discover that they can endure and never after forget that they can endure.

But is there something you can do to weaken that belief before you start?

You have a lot of people in your life who once smoked and are now non-smokers. I might have met some of them: before I went into practice, I interviewed close on a thousand. When I set out, I had no idea how I myself was ever going to manage to stop smoking, and I was deeply afraid that I would become one of those smokers who’d leave it too late, and suffer both illness, pain and the darker pain of regret and self-recrimination, who’d put that load of grief and anguish on my family and friends.

But the more people I spoke to who’d managed this strange, impossible thing, the more everyday it began to seem, the more it was brought down to size. I discovered that not every smoker goes through agonies – that the experience is heavily dependent upon our essential personalities. If, like me, you are prone to blowing things out of all proportion, it can be useful to gather these role models around yourself. Simply, if they can do it, so can you. And if it took them several attempts (it took me north of thirty) then you have permission not to succeed first time. If you fail this time, you don’t have to be hard on yourself: get up and go again.

So, talk to the non-smokers you know. They’ll have a range of experiences to impart, and perhaps some additional advice or tips that have escaped great minds like mine. And it’ll weaken your belief that it’s hard. And that’ll help.

Get Straight About Your Reasons

By and large, the reasons smokers give for wanting to stop fall into the same few categories. Health, don’t-want-to-be-a-slave, smell/dirt, money, “other people”, smoking’s growing pariah status. The trouble with these reasons is that they are poor sources of motivation. Most of them are too easy to get around – smoking outside turns out to be preferable in the short term (and it’s always the short term where smoking is concerned), breath freshener works, being a slave isn’t that bad really, and smoking still isn’t all that expensive compared to the price of a round of drinks.

Look on these classic smoker’s reasons not as reasons to stop, but as a list of smoking’s little inconveniences. Reasons to fear continuing to smoke. None of them, not even health in the majority of cases, mean that you have something real to show for stopping smoking. I repeat: don’t expect stopping smoking to transform your life. On its own, what stopping smoking does for you is remove a convenient source of stress relief, quick concentration, social connection and style. On its own, stopping smoking is a net loss.

That’s not to say that you won’t succeed in stopping smoking when you’re doing it just for smoking’s sake. I know plenty of people who’ve done just that, and so do you. But this is about making the whole thing more straightforward.

It’s better to have, or to create, something in your life that means a great deal for you that stopping smoking can be just one part of. That’s why pregnant women often find stopping smoking easy (not all – genetic disposition/personality works here too, as my own mother will tell you).

What that might be is absolutely individual. I stopped smoking in order that I could jam the fact of my success up the nose of a close but irritating friend again and again over many years. That’s not a worthy goal, and it makes me look like the way it makes me look. You might prefer the man about to adopt with his wife, who wants to keep up with his new son until the son is at least 14. Or the saxophonist who knows she has the potential to go pro – once her lungs have recovered their capacity after stopping smoking. Or the runner, dreaming of a race along the Andes to raise money for a cause dear to their heart.

If at all possible, don’t stop smoking just for stopping smoking’s sake. Have a greater cause. It’ll make stopping more straightforward, and it’ll keep you interested in stopping if you do that human thing and have a setback.

Consider Deliberately Failing To Stop Smoking

A study – which is now so deeply buried in the BMJ’s archive that I can no longer find it – established some years ago that people who repeatedly fail in successive attempts to stop smoking nevertheless gradually improve their chances of success next time.

The study shouldn’t have been necessary. Of course repeated attempts get you closer to eventual success.

For one thing, you get used to the idea of trying to stop. The next attempt is not such a big deal as the first. The pressure upon you lessens with each attempt, and, perhaps counterintuitively, perhaps not, that increases your chances of success. If you can fail and not start hitting yourself with blame and recrimination, then the stakes for your next attempt are lower, and the whole experience will be better.

For another, you get to know what to expect. You grow to know and recognize your own reactions to the stopping smoking situation, and begin to learn your own workarounds.

You get used to the idea of going days without smoking simply because you’ve done it. And although it might not have “caught” with you first time, the prospect is less frightening.

I’ve met many people who decided to “give up” for a fixed period, but who then simply failed to begin again. After a while, you forget those experiences of psychological advantage from smoking. That’s the point when you walk past the tobacco counter in the supermarket and the display – once so colourful, now, in the UK, a sea of white warning and panic – and find that it means nothing to you. It inspires all the appetite and pangs of the catfood aisle.

If your first attempt at stopping smoking was traumatic, you can learn through other attempts that it need not always be so.

Choosing and Making Your Time To Stop

With many habits, such as excessive drinking, or Class A drugs, choosing a special moment at which to quit them is largely futile, if you are working alone. Not so with smoking.

That’s one reason why that although many New Year Resolution stopping smokers fail, a fair few make it through the net and out to the other side. January 1 is a date like few others, and it’s a strong peg to hang something like stopping smoking on.

I’d recommend augmenting the peg, however. As per becoming clear about your reasons, it can be good to roll stopping smoking in with a raft of other minor changes. Stop smoking at the same time as starting the novel, or setting up a GTD sytem, or losing a pound or two.

And, in private, mark the occasion. I say in private because I’m sceptical that having a load of people aware that you’re stopping smoking is a great idea. I’ve never found that terribly motivational – if I’ve been in that situation, more often than not I’ve merely “gone underground” with whatever it was I was allegedly stopping doing.

Smoking was this great twentieth century thing, something you have in common with writers, film stars, leaders and politicians, soldiers in the trenches and heroic doctors on insane shifts, miners and airmen. What an army of pathetic addicts that had so many in its ranks of brilliance, courage, humour and self-sacrifice.

Go and find a high view, smoke your last cigarette there, and enjoy it. Then, quietly, put it out, and walk away into the rest of your life. Buy a special pack if you like – my grandfather smoked Camels, my stepfather B&H Gold – why not a pack from your past? Or pay a visit to Davidoff in London and go for something unusual. Smoke your last and then begin the rest of your life with a meal at a new restaurant, or with a run in the dawn sunlight.

What Not To Try

“Cutting Down.” Really not worth the bother. There really isn’t any proper evidence that you can wean yourself off nicotine slowly, let alone any evidence that doing so produces a more tolerable experience than going cold turkey. In the years immediately after the Second World War, rationing and low incomes made it worthwhile for many British smokers to attempt to play out their limited cigarette supply over a longer period than they would otherwise have done. Almost invariably, cigarettes earmarked for tomorrow or the day after tomorrow were smoked “today”. Anyway, you deserve to treat yourself with more respect than this.

Stopping Smoking On Holiday. It spoils your holiday, and then the real world comes rushing in all at once and overwhelms you. Do it whilst you’re at work. Mark stopping with a special occasion, sure, but not a two-week type of one.

Putting the money you save into a special jar. Non-smokers don’t do this. All it will serve to do is remind you of smoking. And, do you plan to give yourself change out of a note? Or put money in the jar using your switch card? Remember that you’ll still be making all the other real-world transactions which once would have included cigarettes anyway. Again, either be smoking or not smoking: there is nothing between the two save dangerous no-man’s land.

Asking other people to step in if they see you smoking. Your friends and relatives don’t deserve that kind of burden, and you don’t deserve the damage this can do to your relationships. Either fully own your smoking or become a non-smoker. If you need to consider doing this, you need to do some further thinking about stopping before you embark on it. Reread my articles, or for a different opinion on all of this, try this series by Gillian Riley.

Avoiding situations where you expect to smoke. I stopped drinking, but I didn’t avoid my friends or the pub. If you try to avoid places of temptation, you will find there are so many of them that your life is mangled and you will, quite rightly, resent what has brought that about. My advice is, go out, enjoy yourself, see people, do things, have your life. The rewards of stopping smoking are too slight to be worth changing your life upside down for – that’s not rhetorical, just the plain fact of the matter. Stopping smoking does not lead to nirvana: it leaves you in the same neurotic world you were in before.

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7 responses to “Stopping Smoking On Your Own: Tips and Tricks

  1. Interesting again James. I agree about the ‘money in the jar’ thing but what about a ‘notional’ jar. I had a patient who reckoned the money he would save would just about cover the monthly fee for sky sports – he stopped smoking and converted it straight away into a direct debit for sky – worked well for him. Maybe this just reflects what you say about giving yourself a good enough reason.
    On the last point I wouldn’t (as a GP) say that the rewards for stopping are slight, but they are intangible, especially for the young.

    Tony

  2. Im really good at giving up smoking, i’ve done it about 14 times so far. This time seems different though, i read your article and im going at it this time round by just accepting the fact that im not going to smoke, i’ve not told anyone this time as it gets annoying after a while when friends get jelous and try and make you smoke. So im currently under their radar which puts all the pressure off me. Im 14 days into quitting today and lungs are still giving me abuse for all the abuse ive given them. Looking forward to a morning where i dont heavy lungs.

    Anyway I agree totally with your article and its nice to see an honest way of looking at stopping smoking. My idea for quitting was to leave the country for 4 months working in a ski resort so all people here i work with dont know that i was a smoker.. made my life that much easier. Not everyone can do what ive done though so I guess my only input would be to get a hobby where no one knows you so that you can be a born again non smoker without the hangups.

    Right im writing way to much here..

    Thanks again

  3. Im really good at giving up smoking, i’ve done it about 14 times so far. This time seems different though, i read your article and im going at it this time round by just accepting the fact that im not going to smoke, i’ve not told anyone this time as it gets annoying after a while when friends get jelous and try and make you smoke. So im currently under their radar which puts all the pressure off me. Im 14 days into quitting today and lungs are still giving me abuse for all the abuse ive given them. Looking forward to a morning where i dont heavy lungs.

    Anyway I agree totally with your article and its nice to see an honest way of looking at stopping smoking. My idea for quitting was to leave the country for 4 months working in a ski resort so all people here i work with dont know that i was a smoker.. made my life that much easier. Not everyone can do what ive done though so I guess my only input would be to get a hobby where no one knows you so that you can be a born again non smoker without the hangups.

    Right im writing way to much here..

    Thanks again

  4. Yes. this is fine as far as it goes, but it misses out two VERY important issues.

    First of all there’s motivation. The quitter must be motivated toward a smoke-free life rather than away-from being a smoker. This is important because away-from motivation leads to failure. As soon as the quitter is a few days away from smoking, he thinks he’s done it and then has a cigarette to celebrate – just one can’t hurt!

    The other thing is to change the thinking about smoking and quitting.

    * A smoker thinks that ciggies are wonderful and quitting is painful.

    * A non-smoker thinks that ciggies are painful and quitting is wonderful.

    And it really is as simple as that.

    Change the way you think, and you change the way you behave.

  5. (Editing my earlier somewhat graceless reply)

    Michael, if cigarettes are relatively painless, which on the big scheme of things they are, then changing thinking (how? most prospective stoppers I meet are quite determined to do so, just lacking in technique as it were) in the way you describe is going to take people from a near-truth to a falsehood, one that will break down as soon as they have that later cigarette some months later.

    As for motivation, I think I’ve covered that pretty comprehensively in my three posts.

    Sorry.

  6. I’ve been a smoker (20-30 a day) for 22 years. I have never been seriously ill, although my father suffered angina and died after several heart attacks – why wasn’t this enough to make me stop? I have tried patches, gum, hypnosis – failed each time, quite quickly. I have always said it is willpower I lack. I am now 38, happily married, own successful business in France and on saturday night was rushed to hospital with appendicitis. I had the operation and spent five days in hospital and without a cigarette. So of course I can go without, i wasn’t climbing up any walls (although still a bit painful for that), but i didn’t stop thinking about having that one. When I got home yesterday evening I sat outside with a cigarette, I lit it, I smoked three puffs and thought about how stupid i was. I put it out. I still want another one and suppose i will for a very long time and probably will even try now and again – but I do know that I do not ever want to be back in hospital and definitely not for my own stupidness. I will stop this time. My motivation is to get fit enough to hopefully fall pregnant by end of 2008 – can’t think of anything more motivating for either me or my husband (although think he probably would prefer sky sports!!!!)
    James, I really enjoyed your articles, thanks.

    Jo

  7. Been almost a month off the cigarettes and there is only one major problem! Alcohol…. I dont want to stop drinking but alcohol makes me want to smoke more than ever. I had about 4 last night and it felt good, awoke this morning to a tight chest and a horrible taste in my mouth.

    If anyone knows how to stop yourself smoking after a few too many beers then please let me know, i woke up this morning annoyed with myself.

    And one more question, have I undone all the good ive done from the past month?

    Look forward to a reply.

    All the best,

    Daf