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How to stop smoking: Dealing with cravings

A craving is a strong, distracting urge to smoke. Cravings are strongest when you first quit.

What Causes Cravings

When you first quit smoking, your body will go through nicotine withdrawal. You may feel tired, moody, and have headaches. In the past, you may have coped with these feelings by smoking a cigarette.

Places and activities can trigger cravings. If you used to smoke after meals or when you talked on the phone, these things might make you crave a cigarette.

How to Manage Cravings

You can expect to have cravings for a few weeks after you quit. The first 3 days will probably be the worst. As more time passes, your cravings should get less intense.

PLAN AHEAD

Thinking about how to resist cravings ahead of time can help you overcome them.

Make a list. Write down the reasons you are quitting. Post the list someplace visible so you can remind yourself of the good things about quitting. Your list might include things like:

  • I will have more energy
  • I will not wake up coughing
  • My clothes and breath will smell better
  • The longer I do not smoke, the less I will crave cigarettes

Make rules. You might find yourself thinking you can just smoke one cigarette. Any cigarette you smoke will tempt you to smoke more. Rules provide structure to help you keep saying no. Your rules might include:

  • When I have a craving, I will wait at least 10 minutes to see if it passes.
  • When I have a craving, I will walk up and down the stairs five times.
  • When I have a craving, I will eat a carrot or celery stick.

Set up rewards. Plan rewards for each stage of quitting you get through. The longer you go without smoking, the bigger the reward. For instance:

  • After 1 day of not smoking, reward yourself with a new book, DVD, or album.
  • After 1 week, visit a place you have wanted to go for a long time like a park or museum.
  • After 2 weeks, treat yourself to a new pair of shoes or tickets to a game.

Talk back to yourself. There might be times you think you have to have a cigarette to get through a stressful day. Give yourself a pep talk:

  • Cravings are part of quitting, but I can get through it.
  • Every day I go without smoking, quitting will get easier.
  • I have done hard things before, I can do this.

AVOID TEMPTATION

Think about all the situations that make you want to smoke. When possible, avoid these situations. For example, you might need to avoid spending time with friends who smoke, going to bars, or attending parties for a while. Spend time in public places where smoking is not allowed. Try to do things you enjoy like going to a movie, shopping, or hanging out with non-smoking friends. This way you can start to associate not smoking with having fun.

DISTRACT YOURSELF

Keep your hands and mouth busy as you get used to not handling cigarettes. You can:

  • Hold a pen, stress ball, or rubber band
  • Chop vegetables for snacking
  • Knit or do a jigsaw puzzle
  • Chew sugar-free gum
  • Hold a straw or stir stick in your mouth
  • Eat carrots, celery, or apple slices

PRACTICE NEW WAYS TO RELAX

Many people use smoking to relieve stress. Try new relaxation techniques to help calm yourself:

  • Take a deep breath in through your nose, hold it for 5 seconds, exhale slowly through your mouth. Try this a few times until you feel yourself relax.
  • Listen to music.
  • Read a book or listen to an audiobook.
  • Try yoga, tai chi, or visualization.

EXERCISE

Exercise has many benefits. Moving your body may help reduce cravings. It can also give you a feeling of wellbeing and calm.

If you only have only a little time, take a short break and walk up and down the stairs, jog in place, or do squats. If you have more time, go to the gym, take a walk, bike ride, or do something else active for 30 minutes or more.

When to Call the Doctor

If you do not think you can quit on your own, call your health care provider. Nicotine replacement therapy may help you stave off cravings through the first and hardest stage of quitting.

References

American Cancer Society. Quitting smoking: help for cravings and tough situations. Updated November 21, 2014. www.cancer.org/healthy/stayawayfromtobacco/quitting-smoking-help-for-cravings-and-tough-situations. Accessed October 13, 2016.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tips from Former Smokers. www.cdc.gov/tobacco/campaign/tips/. Accessed October 13, 2016.

National Cancer Institute. How to handle withdrawal symptoms and triggers when you decide to quit smoking. Updated October 29, 2010. www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/tobacco/withdrawal-fact-sheet. Accessed October 13, 2016.

Stead LF, Perera R, Bullen C, et al. Nicotine replacement therapy for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;11:CD000146. PMID: 23152200 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23152200.

Ussher MH, Taylor AH, Faulkner GE. Exercise interventions for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014;(8):CD002295. PMID: 25170798 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25170798.

Review Date 7/22/2016

Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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