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Conquering Your Smoking Triggers

Dec 24 2020
6 min read
A man making a cup of tea in his kitchen.

You know all of the reasons you should quit smoking...

...And you may have tried to stop many times before, but if you’re like many smokers, something inevitably triggers you to pick up that cigarette again. There’s a reason it’s called kicking the “habit.”

Part of quitting involves changing old habits and picking up new healthy ones, especially around situations that are known triggers. Lunch breaks, parties, stressful days—most smokers have routines, activities or emotional states that they associate with smoking.

A combination of awareness, perseverance and planning can help you beat smoking triggers. Identify yours and get ready to outsmart your cravings.

The Morning Cigarette

Starting the day with a cigarette and a cup of coffee is a common ritual. The body goes through a period of nicotine withdrawal while you’re sleeping, making a.m. cravings particularly intense. That first cigarette is a tough one to give up.

Since we tend to go through our at-home, morning routine without even thinking twice about what we’re doing, it may be helpful to establish a new groove: Get up, showered and dressed, then head out for your first cup of coffee. Drinking it, say, at the office may help you break the association between coffee and smoking. Or, put on your gym clothes the minute you get up and head out for some exercise. Just 30 minutes of physical activity can diminish a craving.

With Alcohol

Many smokers can’t imagine having a glass of wine without lighting up. Part of this is simply associating one with the other, or being in an environment where both are often present, like a bar or a party. But your brain chemistry plays a role, too. In one study, smokers who drank alcohol had 35-percent stronger cigarette cravings than those who had a fake cocktail.

Researchers say alcohol activates the pleasure center of the brain—an area that, once turned on, seeks things that will help it stay that way. Unfortunately, cigarettes do just that. Alcohol also lowers inhibitions, which can make it tougher to resist a cigarette that crosses your path. Consider curbing or eliminating alcohol consumption to avoid this tricky trigger’s effects altogether.

After a Meal

Eating also activates your brain’s pleasure center, making a cigarette seem like the perfect after-dinner “treat.” You can’t avoid eating, of course, but you can have a plan in place for alternative things to do after you’re through. Be prepared to wash dishes, go for a walk, try a silent meditation or sip some tea, for example.

When You’re Stressed, Lonely or Bored

Many smokers reach for a cigarette when they have a need for comfort, calm, familiarity, stimulation or fun. Nicotine often seems like a solution, since it helps your body quickly release dopamine, a brain chemical that makes you feel more relaxed and reduces stress.

Instead of reaching for your pack, seek out these feel-good sensations in other ways: Start a new book, get some exercise or learn a new hobby. Surround yourself with healthy, positive role models, and turn to a friend or family member to talk through any troubles before negative feelings progress.

On the Phone and in Front of the Tube

Smokers often light up as they perform tasks that leave their hands idle, like chatting on the phone or watching television. You can begin to break this habit by keeping cigarettes, lighters and ashtrays out of reach.

Keep a notepad and pen handy so you can occupy yourself with mindless doodling, or try folding laundry or crocheting. When you have to make a conscious effort to put something down and get up for a smoke, you’ll be more aware of your actions, which may help your will triumph.

In the Car

Smoking while driving is a hard-to-break habit, especially if you drive the same route every day and are used to having a cigarette (or several) as part of your commute. You may even light up before you leave the driveway.

To deal with this trigger, start by removing all cigarettes, matches and lighters from your car. Clean out the ash tray, and add a deodorizer to reduce the smell of smoke. To take your mind off of smoking, try singing along to the radio, chew gum or munch on easy-to-eat snacks like nuts or sunflower seeds.

Make a Plan for Success

Once you understand your smoking triggers and are mindful of your emotional needs, you can begin to cut down on your daily number of cigarettes. Be sure to enlist support from your family, friends, coworkers or anyone else who is present during your trigger moments.

Don’t give up if you slip back into old patterns now and then: That doesn’t have to put an end to your plans for quitting. Be sure to recognize and reward yourself when you forgo temptation with healthy indulgences. As you have success in making these incremental changes, you will gain confidence and ultimately become a nonsmoker.