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Quitting Smoking: Coping With Cravings and Withdrawal


What is an Actionset?

It's not easy to quit smoking. The nicotine in cigarettes is addicting. Your body craves it because it makes you feel good.

So when you try to stop smoking, you go through nicotine withdrawal. You feel awful, and you may worry about gaining weight. You get cranky and anxious. It can be hard to sleep.

You're not the only one. Most people feel bad when they try to quit. The hardest part is not reaching for a smoke to feel better. Use the tips in this Actionset to help you cope. The information also applies if you use chew, snus, or snuff.

Key points

  • Symptoms of nicotine withdrawal are at their worst during the first couple of days or so after you quit. They may last a few weeks.
  • Medicines help ease withdrawal symptoms and craving. This can help you feel better and make it more likely that you won't start smoking again.
  • Exercise and healthy eating also may help.

Talk with your doctor

Your doctor can prescribe medicines that can get you through withdrawal. Together, you can plan the best way to use nicotine replacement products. This may be varenicline (Chantix) and the nicotine patch. Or it may be the nicotine patch plus gum for those times you need something more.

If you have questions about this information, print it out and take it with you when you visit your doctor. You may want to mark areas or make notes in the margins where you have questions.

Return to topic:

Nicotine withdrawal can make you grouchy, angry, stressed, and anxious. You may feel hungrier than you did when you were smoking. You may have trouble concentrating, feel restless, and have problems sleeping. You may also feel depressed and crave cigarettes.

The symptoms are worst during the first week or so and may last a few weeks. For some people, the first month can be hard.

Test Your Knowledge

When you try to quit smoking, you crave cigarettes. You may feel sad and depressed. Or you may feel grouchy and angry or have trouble concentrating and dealing with stress.

True
False

The symptoms of nicotine withdrawal are your body's way of begging for more nicotine.

When you smoke for a long time, your brain learns to depend on nicotine to help you do things. It helps you concentrate, control your anger and hunger, and relax, for example. In fact, nerve cells in your brain have changed. They are different from those of nonsmokers.

When you stop smoking, your brain has to relearn how to do the things nicotine helped you do. Until it does, you may have trouble concentrating and controlling your anger. You may be hungrier and more stressed than when you smoked.

Test Your Knowledge

Cigarette cravings and withdrawal symptoms are your body's way of begging for more nicotine. Smoking a cigarette might make you feel better for a short time, but your body would continue to crave more nicotine.

True
False

Get counseling or other support

Don't try to do it alone. Your doctor can help you learn about medicines or about how to use nicotine replacement therapy. And a support group can keep you on track and motivated. People who use telephone, group, or one-on-one counseling are more likely to stop smoking. Counselors can help you with practical ideas to avoid common mistakes and help you succeed.

  • Call the national quitline at 1-800-QUIT NOW and talk to some experts.
  • Ask friends and family for help, especially those who are former smokers.
  • Ask friends and family members who are smokers not to smoke around you, and try to avoid situations that remind you of smoking.
  • See a counselor, doctor, or nurse who is trained in helping people quit. The more counseling you get, the better your chances of quitting.
  • Enroll in a stop-smoking class or program.
  • Join a support group of others who are trying to quit.

Reduce stress

Many people smoke because nicotine helps them relax. Without the nicotine, they feel uptight and grouchy. But there are better ways to cope with these feelings, and they help you resist cigarette cravings. Try these ideas:

  • Take several deep breaths slowly. Hold the last one, then breathe out as slowly as possible. Try to relax all your muscles.
  • Try massage, yoga, or the traditional Chinese relaxation exercises tai chi and qi gong.
  • Listen to relaxing music. Learn self-hypnosis, meditation, and guided imagery.
  • If you can, try to avoid stressful situations when you first stop smoking. Take a break, and take a walk to avoid the stress.

These ideas can help you relax. But it's also good to figure out the cause of your stress. Then, learn how to change the way you react to it. For more, see Stress Management.

Be more active

Physical activity may help reduce your nicotine cravings and relieve some withdrawal symptoms. It doesn't have to be intense activity. Mild exercise is fine.1 Being more active also may help you reduce stress and keep your weight down.

When you have the urge to smoke, do something active instead. Walk around the block. Head to the gym. Do some gardening or housework. Take the dog for a walk. Play with the kids.

For more, see Fitness.

Get plenty of rest

If you have trouble sleeping, try these tips:

  • Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Take a warm bath or a relaxing walk before bed.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol late in the evening, because it can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night.
  • Don't have coffee, black tea, or other drinks with caffeine in the 8 hours before you go to bed.
  • Do not take naps, unless you are sure they don't keep you awake at night.
  • If you can't sleep, talk to your doctor about medicines to help you sleep while you are first going through withdrawal.
  • Try meditation or deep breathing before you go to bed.
  • Get regular exercise but not during the 3 to 4 hours before you go to bed.

For more, see Insomnia.

Eat healthy

Quitting smoking increases your appetite. To avoid gaining weight, keep in mind that the secret to weight control is eating healthy food and being more active.

  • Don't try to diet. Most people who deprive themselves of food at the same time they are trying to stop smoking have an even harder time of stopping smoking.
  • Substitute more fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods for foods that have a lot of sugar or fat.

For more, see:

Click here to view an Actionset.Quitting Smoking: Dealing With Weight Gain.

Reduce demands on your time and energy

Quitting smoking can be harder if you have a lot of work or family demands.

  • Try to set your quit date for a time when there are fewer work and family demands.
  • Tell your spouse, family, and friends to ask less of you during the first days and weeks that you quit.
  • Do something fun with the money you save from not buying cigarettes.
  • Be aware that being tired from activity, lack of sleep, or your emotions can make it harder not to smoke.

Get counseling or other support

Don't try to do it alone.

  • Call the national quit line at 1-800-QUIT NOW and talk to some experts.
  • Ask friends and family for help. Ask them not to smoke around you, and try to avoid situations that remind you of smoking.
  • See a counselor, doctor, or nurse who is trained in helping people quit. The more counseling you get, the better your chances of quitting.
  • Enroll in a stop-smoking class or program.

Use a stop-smoking medicine

Medicines can help you deal with nicotine withdrawal and cigarette cravings. Most medicines also help prevent weight gain. Research shows that they more than double your chances of quitting for good.2

  • Nicotine replacement medicines can help relieve the physical cravings for nicotine. Nicotine patches, gum, lozenges, and inhalers are helpful, especially when you have a strong craving. If you have been a heavy smoker, the patch and gum or lozenges may help.
  • Medicines without nicotine, such as varenicline (Chantix) or bupropion (Zyban), can also help you quit smoking.
  • A quit-smoking medicine along with nicotine replacement is another option that may help you. This could be varenicline (Chantix) with the nicotine patch and gum, or bupropion (Zyban) and the nicotine patch.

For more on using medicine, see:

Click here to view a Decision Point.Quitting Smoking: Should I Use Medicine?

Read how others manage

Many people try to quit smoking many times before they can stop for good.

Research shows that you'll be more successful if you get help. Here's how a few people finally managed to quit.

Michael

It took Michael seven tries to quit smoking.

"It's awful. My craving for cigarettes was very, very strong," he says. "You just become so frustrated. You feel all this pent-up energy and don't know how to relieve it.

"And you could just go to the corner store and buy a pack and end the misery. ... That's what I would end up doing."

He finally managed to quit by using nicotine patches. He's been smoke-free for nearly four years.

Eric

Eric had his first cigarette when he was 12. By age 23, he was tearing through a pack and a half a day.

He tried quitting "cold turkey." He tried nicotine gum. Neither worked for him. So he tried nicotine patches.

The patches made him feel sick for a few days. The first week without cigarettes felt like torture, because his cravings were so strong. But when he started using gum along with the patch, the cravings became bearable. In five weeks, he had managed to stop smoking.

Test Your Knowledge

A lot of smokers light up when they're stressed. They say that a cigarette helps them relax. But taking a brisk walk or doing some other physical activity is a much healthier way to deal with stress.

True
False

You've learned how to deal with the side effects of nicotine withdrawal. Quitting smoking is tough, so if you feel yourself slipping, be sure to ask for help.

Citations

  1. Taylor AH, et al. (2007). The acute effects of exercise on cigarette cravings, withdrawal symptoms, affect and smoking behaviour: A systematic review. Addiction, 102(4): 534–543.

  2. Talwar A, et al. (2004). Pharmacotherapy of tobacco dependence. Medical Clinics of North America, 88(6): 1528–1529.

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerAdam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerJohn Hughes, MD - Psychiatry
Last RevisedJuly 6, 2011

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