First published on Huffington Post on September 3, 2011
I was a smoker for 28 years. This month I celebrated one year smoke free. Even though I tried to quit many times before — probably 20 to 30 times in the last 10 years — this time felt different. This time it stuck. If you are struggling to gain your freedom from cigarettes, I hope I can give you a few new tactics to try. This is what made the difference for me, once and for all.
In many of my past attempts, I tried the usual tips and tricks. I set a quit date, threw out the ashtrays and elicited support from friends and family, but in the end the standard methods didn’t bring me success. So this last time, I broke nearly every rule but still managed to quit. So what made the difference?
I finally challenged the belief that I needed a cigarette.
“I need a cigarette.” Smokers say or think this all the time in any number of ways. If I was stressed out, I would say it with exasperation: “I need a cigarette!” Even if I grabbed a cigarette without thinking, I was basically saying to myself, “I need a cigarette.”
In the car on my way to work, “Just one cigarette before I get there.” After dinner, “A cigarette would be nice.” As I poured myself a cup of coffee in the morning, “Where are those cigarettes?”
Beliefs are very powerful things. And when a smoker says, “I need a cigarette,” even if we say it flippantly, we really do believe that we need a cigarette. It can be hard for some to admit, because who wants to admit they need something so stupid, but until we face it and call the lie into question, we can’t get past it.
The truth is, we don’t need cigarettes. We need something, but it’s not a cigarette. We need a break, we need a few moments alone, we need a distraction, we need to slow down, we need to give ourselves a gift, we need to feel nurtured, we need a moment’s peace. But we do not need a cigarette.
So this time, when I heard myself say anything close to “I need a cigarette,” I’d answer back forcefully with “That’s a lie! I do not need a cigarette.” Any lie brought into the light loses its power. Just the simple act of calling the lie a lie was enough to loosen its grip on me, and slowly my belief in the lie started to fade.
If I needed a break, I would take a break, but without the cigarette. If I needed a few moments of peace, I’d go to my room, shut the door and meditate or take a quick nap. If I felt tense, I’d exercise. If I wanted to enjoy the evening air, I would take a walk around the neighborhood after dinner, but without the cigarette. In time, my belief changed, and I finally believed that I didn’t need the cigarettes after all.
I learned it’s okay to be uncomfortable.
While the physical symptoms from nicotine withdrawal are certainly real, they are temporary and can be eased with nicotine replacement therapies.
I quit cold turkey, and I was certainly a bear to be around for the first few days. But after a week or so, the nicotine is out of your system. What you’re left with is the discomfort of letting go of something that has come to be like a friend. It is uncomfortable to change an ingrained habit, to create new pathways, to try to cope with life without the usual crutches. And nobody likes to feel uncomfortable.
A friend who is a recovering alcoholic once told me that an important element of his recovery was to learn that it’s okay to be uncomfortable. Many of us have little tolerance for being uncomfortable, and we live in a society that teaches us to leave no desire unmet.
During a 3-day silent meditation retreat, I learned of the power of simply being present with discomfort. When you are sitting for hours in meditation, you learn how truly uncomfortable even a tiny itch can be.
In mindfulness practice you are encouraged to be present with physical sensations even if they are uncomfortable. Rather than unconsciously scratching every itch, you allow your attention to settle fully on the experience of the sensation. You don’t try to change it. You watch what happens when you don’t relate to the sensation according to your conditioned response, which would be scratching. In most cases, I found that the itch subsided on its own — no scratching needed.
You can try the same mindful practice with cravings. Bring awareness to the craving feeling. Rather than answering the feeling with smoking, just make a mental note of the feeling. Don’t get lost in judgment or explanations about why you are experiencing the feeling, because that will only feed the discomfort. Instead, remain in simple awareness of the body sensation — it won’t kill you. Feel your body. Breathe deeply. See if the feeling changes. Does it grow stronger or weaker? Does it pass?
This practice helps you break your conditioned response of attempting to satisfy every craving or tension with a cigarette. It takes the power away from the discomfort and gives it back to you. Awareness can be extremely empowering.
We believe we need willpower to resist the mighty power of our cravings. We don’t need willpower, we just need to see the cravings for what they are. They are transient feelings. They are not almighty and powerful, and they will not do us in. It’s okay to feel the discomfort and let it pass. For so long I had given my power over to the craving for cigarettes, but this time I took my power back.
I replaced smoking with breathing and other healthy things.
We do not breathe deeply enough. Shallow breathing leaves us feeling tired, deprives us of oxygen, and creates tension in our bodies. For smokers, it’s common for us to only breathe deeply when we are filling our lungs with smoke.
When I finally succeeded at releasing my smoking habit, I replaced smoking with deep breathing exercises and other healthy activities. Instead of a smoke break, I would often take breathing breaks — simply stopping what I was doing to take a few slow, deep breaths.
When I was tired and tense after a long day, I would lay down for a few moments and practice 3-part breathing, which is the practice of slowly filling the three chambers of your lungs with air, beginning with the belly and moving up through the rib cage and the upper chest. Then, release the breath fully in all three chambers. It’s extremely effective at releasing tension. You simply can’t be stressed out when you are breathing deeply.
For smokers, a cigarette can represent a well-deserved moment of relaxation. At the end of a long day, we certainly feel like we “deserve” a cigarette. Actually, we deserve so much more than a cigarette. We deserve to relax. We deserve to enjoy our lives fully. And we deserve to have clean, fresh air filling our lungs and fueling our bodies.
Over the course of this past year, I became free from the need for cigarettes through shifts in my belief system, mindfulness practices and healthy replacements. As a result, I’ve become more empowered to create the life I want. I actually lost 15 pounds! I walked my first 5K. I started a yoga practice, and I haven’t looked back longingly at smoking even once. I came to believe that I deserved to live a life of freedom and fullness. And so do you.