Dealing with the symptoms of recovery

Learn to identify withdrawal symptoms you may be experiencing and get ideas on how to deal with them.

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Withdrawal from nicotine is comprised of two parts: the physical and the psychological. The physical symptoms (related to the body no longer getting nicotine or the numerous other substances found in tobacco smoke), although annoying, are not life threatening.  They are temporary: they will go away.  These symptoms are a sign that your body is healing. Try to put a positive spin on them. They are your body's way of telling you how much it has changed as a result of smoking. The psychological part of quitting—which includes feelings of irritability, anxiety or nervousness—is often the greater challenge. 

Most people who quit smoking have some withdrawal symptoms.  Use the information below to identify the withdrawal symptoms you may be experiencing and to get ideas on how to deal with them. 

Feeling nervous, irritable or even depressed

Why this happens: The nicotine receptors in your brain are desperate to get nicotine. This desire for nicotine creates negative feelings, which are relieved temporarily by getting nicotine to the brain by smoking. However, there are many ways to deal with negative feelings that do not include nicotine. Another reason for experiencing irritability is that you may be grieving the loss of something that has been part of your life for a long time.

What you can do:

  • Examine your emotions and identify where they are coming from. Remember that it is those naggy nicotine receptors that are making you feel this way.
  • These feelings will pass. Remind yourself that negative feelings from stopping smoking are temporary and will go away.
  • Inform your family and friends that this may be a tough time for you and remind them that these symptoms, although frustrating, are temporary, and are a result of you doing something to benefit your health and your life.
  • Avoid stressful situations or those that you feel may frustrate you.
  • Practice relaxation exercises such as deep breathing, visualization, or meditation.
  • Physical activity often reduces the negative feelings because it stimulates the release of endorphins, which are "feel good" hormones. Go for a walk or a run, do some yoga, go to the gym etc.
  • Remind yourself over and over again that the progress you have made so far is something to be tremendously proud of. Starting to smoke again often increases the depressing feelings from the guilt of having returned to smoking.
  • Reduce or eliminate caffeine and other stimulants.
  • Remind yourself that this is, BY FAR, the most important thing you can do to improve your health and your life.

Craving for tobacco

Why this happens: Tobacco has become such as part of your daily life that when you eliminate it your body will still desire it.Besides being a habit, your brain is addicted to nicotine and will do anything to get it. Anytime a situation arises where you used to smoke (called a trigger) you will likely think of smoking.

What you can do:

  • Cravings for cigarettes are strongest during the first few days of the smoke-free process. These cravings are short-lived. Remember, the urge to smoke will go away whether you smoke or you don't!
  • Identify your triggers and avoid them if you can, at least in the early days of being smoke-free. Drinking alcohol is a major reason why people return to smoking because alcohol interferes with the ability to stick with decisions. Take a break from alcohol for a short while.
  • Replace tobacco in your routine with something else. A crossword puzzle with a morning coffee or a walk right after dinner are a few examples.
  • Cravings lessen over time. Most ex-smokers say that they only have an occasional urge to smoke about two to three weeks after they have quit. Remind yourself of that.
  • Distract yourself. Taking a walk, talking with friends and loved ones, doing a hobby, reading a book, or exercising are all examples of doing something more constructive with your time.
  • Do a mental task such as adding numbers, counting objects or remembering as much as you can about a situation in the past (E.g. What did you receive as gifts for your 18th birthday? Where did you celebrate it? Who was there?)
  • Try deep breathing.


Why this happens: As the lungs heal, the cilia (tiny hair-like structures that move debris out of the lungs) that were damaged when you used to smoke begin to grow again. These remove the debris that has accumulated in your lungs. The lungs also produce more mucus to clean themselves.

What you can do:

  • Remember that coughing is just a sign that your body is healing.
  • Keep reminding yourself that your body needs to get rid of all the tar in your lungs. It has to come out somehow!
  • Drink lots of water, which is needed for the production of mucus.
  • Suck on sugarless hard candy.
  • As with all the symptoms of recovery, remember that THIS TOO WILL PASS!

Feeling tired

Why this happens: Nicotine is a stimulant, which means that it speeds up some of the body’s processes. Feeling tired is the body's reaction to not having the nicotine. Energy levels will increase as the body gets more used to smoke-free living.

What you can do:

  • Fatigue typically happens in the afternoon. Try to plan activities that help keep energy levels running high, like a mid-afternoon walk.
  • Healthy eating habits, eating at regular intervals, and avoiding foods high in sugar can help reduce the effects of feeling tired.
  • Regular physical activity can increase energy levels and decrease the experience of being tired. Be physically active.

Feeling hungry/gaining weight

Why this happens: As your sense of smell increases, food smells and tastes better. Also, the grumbling in your stomach indicating that your digestive tract is returning to normal may be perceived as hunger. Thirst and the craving for nicotine may also be perceived as hunger. Your metabolism, which was slightly boosted by nicotine, returns to normal so you need less calories. If you continue to eat the same amount of calories you may gain weight.

What you can do:

  • Use the coping strategies you have learned while becoming smoke-free to manage the urge to eat. (e.g. Distract yourself rather than eat or remind yourself of the benefits of being at a healthy weight). This includes adopting a positive attitude to eating a healthy diet.
  • Follow the Canada Food Guide to Healthy Eating. Eat a diet that contains a lot of plants (fruits, vegetables, grains, cereals, beans, nuts and seeds) and a moderate amount of dairy (and alternatives) and meat (and alternatives)
  • Enjoy regular physical activity. Be physically active for 30 minutes, 5 or 6 days a week.  
  • Avoid high-fat or high-sugar snack foods as well as processed foods.
  • Sometimes a person replaces one emotional crutch (smoking) with another (eating). Be aware if this is happening to you


Why this happens: Bowel movements also return to normal after you quit smoking.

What you can do:

  • Drink lots of water
  • A diet high in fibre—found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans—can help.
  • Enjoy regular physical activity.

Headache, dizziness, light-headedness

Why this happens: The carbon monoxide in tobacco smoke "knocks" oxygen out of your red blood cells, and less oxygen gets to your tissues. When you stop smoking, more oxygen gets to your brain and this can make you feel dizzy and light-headed or even give you a headache.

What you can do:

  • If you experience dizziness, sit down for a few minutes until it passes.
  • Take it easy for a while and don't overexert yourself.  
  • Drinking lots of water may help ease your discomfort.
  • This symptom should only last a few days, at most. If these symptoms persist, check with your doctor.


Why this happens: Nicotine is a vasoconstrictor, which means it narrows the blood vessels. When you quit smoking, blood goes back to the vessels that were shrunk by nicotine, and this can create a feeling of itchiness. You may have weird itchy patches or generally feel itchy all over.

What you can do:

  • Buy yourself a back-scratcher and go with the flow, so to speak!
  • If that doesn't help, a cool ice pack (those nice soft gel packs that you can keep in the fridge or freezer) or a cold, wet face cloth can also help take the itch away.


Why this happens: Nicotine can affect how deeply you sleep. Once you stop smoking, your body no longer has its "fix" of nicotine. This symptom should go away within a few days. Note: Dreaming about smoking is a very common occurrence.

What you can do:

  • There are a number of things you can do to manage insomnia. Consult reliable information on sleep on the Internet, a book or a health professional.
  • Remind yourself that this is temporary and it is not worth smoking again. 

Concentration problems

Why this happens: One of the effects of nicotine is to increase alertness and help with concentration. Most ex-smokers say that their concentration returns to normal within one or two weeks after stopping smoking.

What you can do:

  • Avoid situations that require a tremendous amount of concentration.
  • Use a to-do list to keep track of what needs to be done.
  • Carry a small pad and pen with you and write down the things you need to remember.

For more information and a complete workbook to help you quit smoking, visit your guide to qutting smoking for good!

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