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Smoking: How To Stop

A Self-Help Approach To Stopping

Last modified: 
24/04/2012 - 15:20

Contributing Author: Guy Slowik FRCS

Self-help is, in fact, the only way to quit smoking. Others can give you advice and support, but like learning to ski or ride a bicycle, in the end it is up to you. To succeed you must have sufficient motivation to carry you through the task ahead.

If the task is easy, little motivation is necessary, but for a difficult task motivation must be high. For some smokers, stopping smoking will be easier than learning to ride a bicycle. For others it will be much more difficult.

At least two-thirds of smokers are likely to find it difficult to give up smoking. Many will have tried and failed before. It is not their fault that they find it difficult. They do not continue smoking because they are weak-willed or irresponsible, but because they are addicted.

As a result of past exposure to nicotine, starting usually in their teenage years, the nervous system of addicted smokers has been altered and functions best when nicotine is present. They have consequently learned to rely on cigarettes to feel and function normally.

Because of the addictive nature of smoking, smokers generally need to stop smoking long enough for their nervous system to readjust to functioning normally without nicotine and to learn once again to feel happy and normal without cigarettes.

Motivation To Stop

The key to facing the difficult task of keeping off cigarettes long enough for the withdrawal effects to ease and disappear is your motivation to succeed. It helps to understand how smoking damages your body and affects those around you. However, there are also other reasons to think about.

People vary as to what is most important to them personally. An important motive for one smoker may be of little concern to another who stops for a different reason. In general, reasons people give for stopping smoking fall into the following seven themes.

  • Health. Concern for their own health is by far the most important motive for smokers who give up smoking. The onset of minor ailments, such as coughs, sore throats, breathlessness, indigestion, and feeling generally less well and less fit, are early signs that the body has had enough. These early warnings are more important in persuading some smokers to stop than is the risk of future fatal disease. Heart disease is the major risk and it is far more important that individuals stop smoking than worry about weight, lack of exercise or being screened for high cholesterol or blood pressure.
  • Health of others. Babies and young children are especially vulnerable to passive smoking in the home. The health of a nonsmoking spouse is also put at risk. For pregnant women, smoking impairs the development of their unborn child and has lifelong effects on the baby.
  • Expense. Many smokers avoid thinking too much about the financial cost. Others come to resent the waste of money, even if they can afford it. Few take the trouble to work out in detail what they could save by stopping smoking.
  • Example. For parents, doctors, and teachers, the responsibility of setting a good example to others is often an additional motive that tips the balance in favor of stopping.
  • Social pressure. The social pressures may be for or against smoking, depending on the company one keeps. Due to concern about passive smoking, pressures against smoking in offices, restaurants, and other public places are rising sharply. In some circles, an attitude is beginning to develop that people who still smoke must have a "problem," rather like drinking too much.
  • Mastery. Some reach the stage where they realize that they get very little positive pleasure out of smoking and continue only because they are hooked. They come to resent the feeling of being controlled by their need to smoke, and are motivated to stop by their desire to regain control and self-mastery.
  • Aesthetic. Unlike nonsmokers, most smokers do not regard smoking as a nasty or dirty habit. They are not disturbed by the sight of overflowing ashtrays and stubs in saucers or put off by the smell of stale smoke on their partner's clothes or breath. But, after years of unconcern, some smokers come to develop a strong dislike of the dirtiness and messiness of smoking and are motivated to stop on this account.

Thinking About Stopping Smoking

Most smokers are motivated and go on wanting to stop for many years before they finally decide to carry it through and stop. Half-hearted attempts to "have a go" or to "see how it goes" are soon abandoned when it gets difficult.

To succeed in stopping, those who find it difficult will need to think and make a plan. They will need to think about their motives and doubts to make sure of their commitment to never smoke again, and to then plan how to face the difficulties of withdrawal until they gradually subside.

To help make up your mind about stopping, make a list of all the reasons that are important for you. Make a similar list of all the positive benefits of smoking you will miss, and any withdrawal difficulties you anticipate when you stop.

When you weigh up the two lists, remember that what you may miss and any suffering you may endure will be temporary and may last only three to four weeks. However, the benefits of stopping will be permanent and success at stopping will give you lasting satisfaction. It is your choice. You will succeed if you commit yourself to stopping.

Don't be discouraged if you have tried before and failed. Most successful ex-smokers will try a few times before finally succeeding. You can learn from previous attempts how to avoid making the same mistakes.

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From Andrew Maynard - Chair of the University of Michigan Department of Environmental Health Sciences, with help from David Faulkner - 2013 Master of Public Health graduate.