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Smoking takes the lives of about 15,000 Australians every year, yet in March 2014 alone, $3.4 billion was spent on cigarette and tobacco consumption. Nicotine is highly-addictive, so even those who truly wish to quit can struggle to kick the habit. What many don’t realise, however, is that quitting smoking is about more than just cleansing your body of nicotine. There’s a significant mental aspect of smoking cessation that’s arguably more difficult than the physical part.

This guide aims to help you kick your smoking habit by addressing those tricky mental facets. It will cover how to mentally prepare yourself to quit, keep yourself on track after you’ve stopped smoking, and get over potential speed bumps along the way. You’re more likely to conquer your addiction if you know what to expect and how to overcome it, so let this guide lead the way to a healthier life.

Taking the first step: Preparing to quit

Deciding once and for all that you’re going to quit is the first step, but unfortunately, it’s usually not as easy as making the choice one day and quitting the next. Give yourself a little time to prepare for what’s ahead and create a plan. The more prepared you are, the less likely you are to fall back into old habits. Remember: you can do this!

Decide on a date that you’re going to quit, but be strategic. For example, if social drinking is one of your triggers for smoking and you have an upcoming family wedding where alcohol will be flowing freely, postpone your quit date until after the event. Not only will temptation be abundant, you might be a little cranky from withdrawal and struggle to enjoy yourself.

Next, start a quitting journal to reflect on your motives for smoking and your feelings about your habit.  Consider the times and places you smoke most often, with whom you indulge your habit, and most importantly, why you typically light up. Make a chart to address your triggers: in the left column, list what your triggers are. In the right column, come up with ways to avoid or cope with those situations. It’s important to have your plan written down because in the moments where a craving hits you hard, it might be difficult to recall your strategy on your own.

There are two main ways to quit: gradually or all at once (“cold turkey”). Quitting cold turkey with no nicotine aids like patches or gum puts you at greater risk for tough withdrawal symptoms like irritability, insomnia, and depression. Since these symptoms can last up to three months, it’s no wonder that some people find it difficult to not give in to their cravings. On the other hand, quitting gradually can sometimes create a reward value to the cigarettes you do allow yourself. By making yourself wait for it — similar to an excited child waiting for his Christmas present — the build-up is worth the pay-off. Ultimately, you’ll need to decide the best approach for you personally. Try quitting gradually first and note in your journal how you’re handling it; if you find that you’re consumed by the thought of your next cigarette, cold turkey might be a better route.

If you decide to quit over time, change your smoking routine about a week before your quit date. Purchase only one pack at a time and switch to a less desirable brand or type: menthols, light versions, low-tar filters, or unusual brands you’ve never heard of. Avoid situations where you’re more likely to smoke as much as possible; you may not be able to cut the cigarette you have during your commute in the morning, but you can skip that after-work drink that’s usually accompanied by a smoke. If you’re having trouble finding places to kick the habit, start keeping a daily log of your cigarettes and review it later to see where there are opportunities to cut back. And delay the process as long as possible for the times you do light up by taking deep breaths, chewing a piece of sugar-free gum, or distracting yourself with a task that will keep your mind occupied.

Do what you can to make smoking an inconvenience. If you roll your own cigarettes, roll only one or two at a time so that it becomes more of a hassle to satisfy your craving. Keep your pack in a spot that’s out-of-reach like on top of the fridge or on a high shelf in the closet, and store your lighter somewhere separate. You may even want to wrap them in plastic wrap to make them even more of a hassle to get to — the more of a bother it is to smoke, the less likely you are to give in!

Tackling the beast: quitting

You’ve done all you can to prepare, whether it’s cutting back on your nicotine intake or starting your journal and planning the ways you’ll resist cravings. All that’s left is officially taking the dive and doing your best to stick to your plan.

Start by cleaning out your entire life of smoking: get rid of your ash trays, lighters, and cigarette cases. Wash or dry clean any linens or pieces of clothing that smell like smoke. Quitting is difficult enough without having constant reminders of your addiction. Ideally your spouse or roommate either isn’t a smoker or is quitting with you, but if not, ask him or her to keep their habit as separate from you as possible.

That means only smoking outside (preferably a few meters from the home so the smoke doesn’t linger or blow indoors) and keeping up with their personal hygiene so you don’t constantly smell it on them; after smoking, they should brush their teeth or chew sugar-free gum to eliminate cigarette breath, and if they had a cigarette in a confined space they should throw their clothes in the laundry immediately and take a shower. Don’t feel as if you are inconveniencing them — theirs is a dangerous habit, and perhaps you’ll be able to help them quit by making it trickier for them to relax with a smoke.

Do what you can to reduce any stress in your life that normally causes you to smoke, keeping in mind this may mean significant changes to your overall lifestyle. When stress is unavoidable, substitute smoking for a healthier behaviour like exercising. Pick up a new hobby that can keep your mind off smoking — knitting, painting, and woodcarving are all activities that require both mental focus and the use of your hands, so they can be excellent distractions. Avoid people and activities that usually go hand-in-hand with smoking, and even consider taking a break from seeing your smoker friends who could act as triggers. If you talk to them about your commitment to quitting, they should be understanding of your distance.

Be vocal about your decision to quit smoking. It’ll help to have friends and family to hold you accountable to your commitment and do what they can to support you. Not only that, but you’ll need someone to vent to on your particularly rough days! If you know someone who recently quit, ask them to act as your sponsor. They’ll have a deeper understanding of what you’re going through and will likely know exactly what to do to keep your mind off your cravings.

The key to getting through the initial hump of quitting is changing the way you think about it. Nicotine typically takes only 72 hours to leave your system, so generally if you can go three full days without smoking you won’t have a real physical need. What lingers is the perception of yourself as a smoker; it’s been a part of your identity for a significant amount of time, so it isn’t exactly easy to dismiss. Plus there are those sentimental elements: that seemingly natural feeling of having a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other, or that satisfying first drag after a long day of work.

To overcome these feelings, you must re-frame what you’re doing. Don’t think of it as “giving up” smoking, because that implies a loss. In reality, you’re actually gaining so much more: your health, lung function, energy, money, even a better sense of self-control. Fight back when your mind questions why you’re quitting or tells you that you’re not capable. Your brain has spent so much time convincing you that you were powerless against your addiction that the negative thoughts will probably come automatically for at least a while. Counter them with positive self affirmations:

  • “I am in control of my own life, decisions, and health.”
  • “Being able to say, ‘I don’t smoke’ gives me an incredible sense of pride.”
  • “All urges and habits in my life are health-giving.”
  • “I only engage in habits that support my well-being.”
  • “Being nicotine-free has given me renewed life.”
  • “Being nicotine-free makes me feel young and alive.”

Come up with your own affirmations that suit your personal accomplishments. If you have children, remind yourself that you’re setting a positive example not only by making healthy decisions but by taking control and working to overcome an obstacle. Focus not on who you were (or who you are if you still identify as a smoker), but on who you want to be. Before you know it, these positive affirmations will replace your negative thoughts and come to you automatically, even on your tough days.

Overcoming speed bumps

It could be a week after quitting that you find yourself really struggling, or even three months down the line. The urge to smoke may never completely subside, especially when you’re in social settings. It’s OK – and completely normal – to feel tempted. What’s important is that you don’t let days or weeks of hard work go out the door.

The number one rule after quitting: don’t give in to a craving even once. No kind of stressful event will be made better by reverting back to unhealthy habits. Besides, it’s not so much that cigarette that relaxes you; it’s taking the time to step aside and take slow, long, deep breaths that allow your mind to drift. You can accomplish this kind of relaxation without smoking, and it will be even more rewarding to breathe in fresh air.

Again, the key is to change the way you look at it. A cigarette break often comes as a reward for achievements like finishing a big project at work, surviving that unexpected run-in with your ex, or sitting through a family dinner full of political debate, but think about it: is paying money to inflict life-threatening damage to your health really a prize? If stepping outside and breathing isn’t enough, pretend you’re smoking: imagine you’re holding a cigarette and borrow a friend’s lighter to ignite it. Breathe deeply and slowly, bringing your “cigarette” to your mouth as you would to smoke. Mime putting it out in an ashtray. It may feel silly at first, but it can be very satisfying to go through the motions.

Because smoking was such a regular habit, cigarettes have a way of feeling like an old friend, and over time it’s hard not to miss their presence. If you start to become very aware of how empty your hand feels without one, hold a pencil, paper clip, or marble instead. If your fixation leans toward the oral side, substitute a cigarette with a toothpick, sugar-free lolly, cinnamon stick, or piece of celery. You could even chew on a straw (cocktail straws are the perfect size) or a stir stick — just be sure it doesn’t turn into obsessive gnawing that could damage your teeth.

Socialising will likely be the biggest hurdle you’ll have to overcome. It’s tough to not look across the bar at someone with a cigarette and feel anything but jealousy, but once more you must alter your perception. Instead of thinking, “Man, I wish I could be like him and have a smoke,” train your brain to focus on what he’s sacrificing:

  • “That guy is going to be coughing up a storm in the morning.”
  • “I’m glad I’m not setting that kind of example for my kids.”
  • “With all the money he’s spent on smoking, I bet he could have bought a boat by now.”
  • “It must be tough for him to go for a jog with all of that tar intake. I’m glad I don’t put my lungs through that kind of stress anymore.”
  • “I bet his clothes smell like smoke. I’m glad I don’t walk into a room reeking of cigarettes.”

It’s common to feel depressed after quitting. You may also see changes in your appetite, sleeping habits, or motivation to get out and be social. Use your journal as an outlet to express your feelings and don’t hesitate to reach out to loved ones for support. If you feel symptoms of depression for longer than two weeks or genuinely worry about your mental health, contact your doctor immediately.

There may be support groups within your workplace or through a local hospital, so find out about the options in your area. The Australian National Quitline can be reached at 13 78 48 (13 QUIT) for the cost of a local call on landlines and regular charges via mobile phone. The quitline is confidential and available 8am-8pm Monday through Friday. You can even download quitting apps to your phone for on-hand constant support and insight into the health benefits you’re receiving and money you’re saving each day you abstain from smoking.

Quitting smoking doesn’t have to be the hardest thing you ever do. By re-framing your perspective and looking at it as a gain rather than a loss, you’ll be able to kick the habit for good. And if you do fall off the wagon despite your best efforts, forgive yourself. Each day you go without smoking is a win, so give yourself credit for your brief success and try again. The important thing is to keep fighting until you succeed!

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