Smoking tobacco is the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. Every year 480,000 Americans die from smoking (plus almost 42,000 die from second-hand smoke), and millions more are living with a smoking-related illness. Anyone who smokes knows this, but there’s a reason they keep doing it anyway: It’s really freakin’ hard to quit.
The CDC estimates that in 2012, more than 4 out of 10 (42.7 percent) of all adult smokers made an attempt to quit. But nicotine is an extremely addictive drug, both physically and mentally—not to mention, just the habit of lighting up however many times a day is tough to break, too. “About 75 percent go back to smoking,” Geoff Michaelson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Vienna, Virginia, who specializes in smoking cessation, tells SELF. “But the key is to not get discouraged. The truth is that the more time a person puts into stopping,” the greater his or her chance of success. “For those who keep at it, that 75 percent [rebound rate] drops,” he adds.
A recent study came out concluding that quitting cold turkey, instead of weaning yourself off gradually, may be the most effective way to quit. The reason cold turkey seems to work, Michaelson suggests, is because those who quit abruptly are probably the most highly motivated to stop smoking. “They don’t want to become ill, they’re sick and tired of the problems associated with smoking, or perhaps they’ve tried many other methods and for some people it’s the ‘last’ thing to try,” he says. “The thing that helps more than anything else is the personal motivation.”
It takes about seven to 10 days for nicotine to completely clear out of your system, Michaelson says, “so getting through that first week to 10 days is the toughest part. Then the chemical addiction is done, but the psychological need remains.” Here, Michaelson lays out some helpful ways to push through the urge to light up and finally reach your goal of becoming an ex-smoker.
1. Get your family and friends on board.
After personal motivation, social support is the next essential pillar of smoking cessation. “Tell a whole bunch of folks this is what you’re going to do,” Michaelson suggests, and get them on board to encourage you and support your decision to kick the habit. Joining a support group is a great idea, too, whether it’s through an organization like the American Cancer Society, a local support group, or an online community. “All that support makes a difference.”
2. Find a new, healthy stress reliever.
Smoking is a stress reliever for many. “There’s no question that cigarettes do make people feel better—they have a stimulant in them,” Michaelson says. Replace cigarettes as your default stress-management tool with something else. Exercising regularly can relieve stress, help boost your mood, and even help steady your concerns about gaining weight gain when you quit. Taking up meditation can help, too. (You can even try one of these great apps to help you get started.) The habits surrounding smoking can be very difficult to break, so creating new ones that don’t involve cigarettes will help.
3. Treat yourself to a teeth cleaning.
Smoking messes with your teeth and gums, so getting them cleaned, or even whitened, is excellent positive reinforcement. “The promise of a brighter smile is motivation in itself,” Michaelson says. Seeing a physical change that can be possible if you quit will help you stay focused.
4. Pick something else to chew or suck on.
This is an old trick, but so easy to do. If you’re a smoker, you know that just having something in your mouth becomes a habit. Michaelson suggests chewing gum or keeping healthy snacks nearby to chomp on when you feel like the urge. The American Cancer Society also suggests cinnamon sticks, celery, toothpicks, or even straws to keep your mouth busy.
5. Find something else to do with your hands.
By that same token, some people get used to just holding something in their hands, Michaelson says. Find something else that you can hold, like a pen or a coin, to occupy that empty space.
6. Drink more water.
“People worry about weight gain with smoking cessation,” Michaelson explains, which is why he recommends drinking more water to prevent your body from holding onto excess water weight. As counterintuitive as it sounds, drinking more will tell your body it’s OK to flush fluid out instead of holding onto it in anticipation of dehydration. It won’t stop you from gaining weight as your appetite and metabolism return back to their natural rates without nicotine, but it’ll help get rid of any extra bloating and make the changes in your body feel less dramatic. Plus, drinking water is generally good for you, so you’ll feel better overall. It’s also good to opt for water over caffeine and alcohol, which are commonly associated with smoking and may bring back stronger cravings.
7. Don’t be afraid to see a psychologist.
“Psychologists have made a major impact in helping people stop smoking,” Michaelson notes, because they can give smokers the tools they need to break habits and change their behavior. A mental health professional can teach you mental tricks and patterns of thinking that’ll keep your eyes on the prize and help you stay motivated—plus, stress management and relaxation techniques that you may not have thought of on your own. For example, Michaelson notes that hypnosis is a relaxation technique that some people try for smoking cessation. “Its success depends on the patient’s hypnotizable ability,” he notes, “but it can help people manage the stress of stopping and can also enhance their motivation.” Ultimately, getting help from a professional adds yet another pillar of support, making you that much more likely to quit for good.