The main reason smokers continue to smoke, despite wishing to quit, is that they are addicted to nicotine. When you stop using tobacco, your brain stops getting nicotine and this usually results in the experience of negative emotions. It is extremely important to note that these negative emotions will go away whether you smoke or you don’t.
The urge to smoke is short-lived, only lasting a minute or two. As time goes by without smoking, these negative emotions occur less frequently and are weaker, until eventually they go away altogether.
The amount of time it takes for the urge to disappear varies from person to person. Within three (3) days of quitting smoking, all the nicotine in your system will be eliminated. However, the receptors that nicotine stimulate in the pleasure/reward area of your brain still have a “memory” and will “ask” for more nicotine, which you may experience as irritability, anxiety, nervousness, craving for a cigarette etc. This means that you will likely have the urge to smoke even after the nicotine is gone from your body.
Building a repertoire of coping strategies that effectively help you resist the urge to smoke is an essential part of the quit smoking process. There are two main types of coping strategies: cognitive and behavioural.
- Cognitive strategies are those in which you change the way you think about a situation, such as viewing quitting as a gift rather than a deprivation, remembering that the urge is temporary and will go away, and reminding yourself that smoking creates stress rather than helps manage it.
- Behavioral strategies are those where you actually do something to manage the negative emotions. These include exercising, drinking a glass of water, deep breathing, singing, doing a hobby etc.
The booklet Your Guide to Quitting Smoking for Good from Concordia University Health Services has a large section (beginning on page 17) dedicated to coping strategies. The goal of this section is to help you build a personal repertoire of dozens upon dozens of nicotine-free coping strategies that you can use to manage the negative emotions that you will likely experience when you quit. When you feel bad and have the urge to smoke, turn to one of these strategies rather than turn to tobacco. Not only are these coping strategies effective for helping you quit smoking, they are also effective in many other situations that require you to cope with negative emotions.