So you’ve decided to finally ditch cigarettes? Afraid of the withdrawal symptoms, failure — or maybe even success? There are physical withdrawal symptoms when you quit smoking, but how bad are they and what can you expect during the process?
“If you look at all the reasons people give for not wanting to quit smoking, most of them are excuses or myths,” says Michael Eriksen, ScD, director of the institute of public health at Georgia State University and former director of the CDC office of Smoking and Health.
“I think the major issue is people are afraid of failing," says Eriksen. "That’s why I think you need to build your confidence and get the skills and knowledge to be successful and know it’s not uncommon to relapse."
Eriksen goes so far as to say that people who repeatedly fail would like to quit in theory, but lack the motivation and confidence to succeed. “Most quit attempts fail — it’s not that it’s impossible to quit, it’s that people aren’t ready,” he says. After all, there are 50 million ex-smokers in this country. So, how can you succeed?
Willpower. Scientific literature says that you have to be confident in your ability to succeed, and some people may translate that as willpower. The scientific term is self-efficacy, and there’s been a lot of research on self-efficacy not only for smoking but for other behaviors, mental issues and phobias. It basically boils down to believing that you can do it and being confident in your abilities.
Here are some withdrawal symptoms you may encounter:
A lot of people are worried about gaining weight when they quit smoking. The truth is not everybody who quits gains weight and for those who do, it’s an average of between 6 to 9 pounds.
“The reality is that you’d need to gain over 100 pounds after quitting smoking before you even start to diminish the benefits of quitting,” says Michael Steinberg, MD, MPH, director of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey’s Tobacco Dependence Program. And there are things people can do to reduce their weight gain when they quit.
You wouldn’t keep a chocolate cake in the refrigerator if you are trying to stop binge eating, so when you’re quitting smoking and you know you may have an increased appetite, make sure you have healthy choices in the house. “Exercise and walking are beneficial both for quitting smoking and weight control and there is some evidence that people who used medications like nicotine replacement tend to delay weight gain when they quit smoking,” Steinberg says.
When you give up anything (desserts, smoking, “Mad Men”) you tend to get cranky. With smoking, it’s a physical response to taking tobacco smoke and nicotine out of your system and your brain. Using the patch or the gum will help reduce those withdrawal symptoms and thus improve your crabby disposition. If you’re withdrawing from anything, seek some type of help. Call a quit line, talk to a therapist, enlist your doctor’s help or share your concerns with a friend. The good news is that a bad or blue mood only lasts for the first couple weeks after quitting.
Lack of creativity
There is no evidence that quitting smoking is going to affect creativity. What some people do notice is difficulty concentrating. The withdrawal process only makes it more difficult to focus. “There is no evidence that smoking improves higher functions and higher cognitive thought processes and certainly not creativity,” Eriksen says.
Sometimes people have an association with smoking and the creative process. There are higher rates of smoking in certain groups of people in the artistic fields, like chefs, artists and writers. When creative types get into their routines, they may sit in a special room or favorite chair when they’re creating, they may have that cigarette (or glass of wine) with them and they associate it with being creative. In reality, they’ll put out just as many masterpieces after they quit.
Fear of failure
None of us like to fail at anything. Quitting smoking is one of the hardest things a person can try to do. “We see people come to our program who have successfully quit heroin addiction, cocaine addiction, alcohol addiction, and they come in and say, ‘I’ve given up all these things but I can’t get rid of my cigarettes.’ And that’s a function of nicotine being one of the most addictive drugs on the planet,” Steinberg says.
Most people try to quit on their own, cold turkey, and the quit rates for those who go it alone successfully are less than 5 percent. If you get help through a healthcare provider, a tobacco treatment program, or a telephone quit line, the chances of being successful go up dramatically.
Don’t be afraid of success either. Fearing success will never result in a positive outcome. Instead, envision what life will look like when you succeed – better health, more money in your pocket, free from the ties of nicotine – and find the confidence, self-efficacy or willpower you need to make a change. Believe in your ability to succeed and know that any real withdrawal symptoms are short-lived.
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