Obviously smoking cigarettes is bad. What is not obvious to most people is that the market for smoking cessation aids is dominated by nicotine replacement therapies, and the success rates are possibly worse than quitting cold turkey. Most smokers are only moderately addicted to nicotine, and withdrawal lasts a few days to three weeks tops. However, after quitting, many go back to their old habits weeks or even months later, when their craving for cigarettes has nothing to do with a physical addiction to the nicotine.
The behavioral dependency to smoke can last a lifetime. Cigarettes become a ritual. Most people smoke at the same times every day. For example, they have a cup of coffee, smoke a cigarette, talk on the phone, smoke a cigarette, walk the dog, smoke a cigarette. This pattern just becomes an automated routine that is performed without thought.
A habit actually is three parts: the cue, action and reward. Most people are familiar with their cues, or triggers, to smoke a cigarette. The action is the smoking of the cigarette. But what most people find is that the reward is not the smoking and nicotine. Their reward may actually be something normally unrelated, like relief from boredom, a break from stressful activities or an excuse to socialize. Habits are deeply engrained in the brain, in the basal ganglia, and really can't be erased, but they can be replaced!
A recent study at the Johns Hopkins University showed how the behavioral dependency is actually enforced. When an action follows a cue, and something good happens, the body releases dopamine, the pleasure hormone, enforcing the habit. After the habit is repeated a number of times, the brain learns a shortcut and begins to release dopamine in response to the cue. This means, dopamine is released at the sight of a cigarette, or old trigger, making it almost impossible to focus on anything else.
Professional counseling has shown to be the most beneficial technique for quitting smoking. A counselor will help a person to recognize why they smoke, their triggers and rewards for smoking, and find an alternative that works for that individual. Unfortunately, most people don't have access to top counselors, but there are books, smartphone apps, and online programs that can help. Mindfulness is a new area in smoking cessation, and everyone can use the simple behavioral modification technique known as the Substitution Strategy for Quitting Smoking.
The idea of replacing the habit of smoking for something else is not new. In fact, most smokers that quit cold turkey unknowingly use some sort of a substitution strategy. Many swap cigarettes for a high-calorie and sugary snacks, causing the dreaded post-quitting weight gain. While the snacks work to keep the hands and mouth busy, this is not sustainable and so does not satisfy the cues and rewards in an alternative habit loop. A good example, if the reward for smoking is a break from daily activities, is making and sipping a cup of herbal tea somewhere else. This would be much a healthier substitute and provide that same reward.
Habits are a powerful force that can be used to greatly improve health and wellbeing. Becoming aware of the cues to smoke, and replacing it with a new healthy habit, is an effective and completely natural way to quit smoking for good.
Matt Bucklin is the founder of Quit Co. and creator of Quit Tea, a herbal tea that helps smokers quit by temporarily supporting willpower to help them replace their habit for good.
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Posted on WholeFoods Magazine Online, 2/19/2016
NOTE: WholeFoods Magazine is a business-to-business publication. Information on this site should not be considered medical advice or a way to diagnose or treat any disease or illness. Always seek the advice of a medical professional before making lifestyle changes, including taking a dietary supplement. The opinions expressed by contributors and experts quoted in articles are not necessarily those of the publisher or editors of WholeFoods.