Following on from our conversation with Dr Andy McEwen two weeks ago, who provided a doctor’s insight into giving up smoking, we also wanted to get a counsellor’s take on the subject. So, we got in touch with QUIT: the stop smoking charity. QUIT strives to educate young people so that they are never tempted to pick up a cigarette, while also supporting those who have decided to give up.
Quitline Counsellor Kate Phillips spoke to us in detail about the cessation process and the various support methods available. Here’s what she had to say:
Q. What are the best practices for new ex-smokers to employ during the initial few days?
‘Do take advantage of all the help available to you. Use your local stop smoking services, the appropriate cessation medication and the Quitline for support as this will double your chances of long term success.
The medication will considerably reduce any difficult sensations associated with nicotine withdrawal. This allows you to focus your energies on changing your habits to those of a non-smoker and to generally get on with your life.
The stop smoking advisors will help you to persevere in order to reach and maintain your no smoking goal, will address any questions you have and will ensure you are taking your medication correctly. They will monitor your carbon monoxide levels each week to offer you proof of the benefits of quitting.’
However giving up smoking is difficult from a mental as well as a physical perspective. There is plenty of help available in the form of support groups and medication to get you through the tough days; but you also need to prepare your mind for the new changes and commit to your new way of life.
‘Remember why you have made the decision to quit. Keep this in focus to encourage you through any difficult times.’ says Kate.
‘Stop completely. Don’t put it off. Get rid of everything associated with smoking so you’re not tempted. Plan out your days so that you’re occupied all the time. You can’t always be busy, in fact you might need to catch up on your sleep, but don’t allow yourself to get bored. Boredom is a major enemy of staying stopped.’
Q. The first few days of a smoking cessation journey can seem extremely daunting, so when will it start to get easier?
‘Many smokers do find the first few days especially difficult, in particular days three and four whilst nicotine leaves the body. Others report a challenging patch after a couple of weeks or so.
The thing to keep in mind is that your health improves the very moment you stop smoking. This is backed by plenty of evidence, so trust in the process. Realising this is important, since you may actually feel worse before you start feeling better. You can even feel both better and worse at the same time.
Don’t get downhearted. Remember that quitting is causing your body and your mind to go through a massive upheaval, you’re saying goodbye to what’s been normal for you. Not only are you coping with the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal and having to learn new habits and routines, but your body will be detoxing, which can put a heavy burden on your immune system. Therefore it’s not surprising if you don’t feel at your very best.’
Kate also stresses that when it comes to quitting, no two people are the same:
‘In the same way that people are different, people’s experiences of quitting will be different. This can seem very unfair as some will have an easier time of it than others.
Many people put off quitting as they are afraid of what might happen and how they might feel. When they get around to taking action, the experience is often much easier than they dared to believe.
Be patient. How long did you smoke for? Remember the old saying ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’? If you’ve smoked for a good few years, you’re not suddenly going to find being a non-smoker completely normal after a couple of weeks!’
It’s also vital to let your doctor know if you’ve decided to give up, as Kate explains:
‘In the same way that you will start to digest your food differently as a non-smoker, you will also digest your medications differently when you’ve quit, so it is important that your situation is monitored so that medications can be adjusted as needed.’
Q. How can someone remain positive?
‘Keep a quitting diary or at least make a few notes. When you’re feeling great, it’s easy to forget the battles you had to go through; when you’re having a tough time, it’s hard to imagine feeling better! Quitting can be a bit of a rollercoaster so a diary will remind you that any difficulties you experience are temporary.
Have a think about the support you want from those around you. Do you want people to be involved, to encourage you, or would you prefer to get on with quitting quietly? People may be very well-meaning but get it completely wrong, so let them know what you want and what you don’t want.’
Making short-term adjustments to your lifestyle, Kate illustrates, can help too:
‘You cannot live like a hermit but do try and avoid the worst ‘trigger’ situations at the beginning. For many this will be socialising and alcohol, so why not plan different activities with people who will be supportive of your decision not to smoke until you feel more confident as a non-smoker?’
Q. A question on the tip of many ex-smokers' tongues is do the cigarette cravings ever truly go away?
‘Cravings will go away. For some they will be stronger and will last longer than for others which is why using adequate smoking cessation medication is advised in order to keep them under control.
The quickest way for the cravings to cease is to stop smoking completely and to keep stopped completely, remembering the ‘not one puff’ rule. It may sound harsh, but it's the best way to quit and stay quit. This will allow the cravings to fade away over the space of a few weeks until you are no longer troubled by them. Smoking again will only reignite the cravings so it will take longer for them to disappear.’
Q. What can cause an ex-smoker to relapse?
‘Those who relapse soon after quitting might have done so for a variety of reasons. It may be the strength of the cravings or it may be that they’re experiencing uncomfortable nicotine withdrawal symptoms. You are more likely to put up with difficulties if your desire to quit is strong so focus on your goal and all the benefits quitting will bring to you.’
Urges to smoke which present themselves a long time after someone has quit are more likely to be psychological, as Kate explains:
‘If you haven’t smoked for several months or years, it is extremely unlikely you will be battling cravings on a daily basis. You may even have become repulsed by your old habit and cannot imagine ever smoking again. However, you may still get the occasional ‘cigarette memory’ appearing where the thought pops into your mind of how nice a cigarette would be. This is just a memory or an association rather than a craving and can be easily controlled. Firstly, remind yourself you no longer smoke and secondly ask yourself whether you really want to have to go through the quitting process all over again.'
Q. Are there any common factors which might contribute to someone relapsing after successfully not smoking for a long period?
‘It’s unusual for this to happen. However, there are two common scenarios: holidays and shock.
Holidays can often trip people up; whether it’s the temptation of cheap tobacco, being around other smokers or the escape from everyday life.
Long-term quitters can be vulnerable after receiving bad news. It’s as if they revert back to their old coping strategies without remembering that they no longer smoke. This is why it’s important to work with your advisor to find different ways of addressing old problems so you can use these new methods when faced with stressful or upsetting situations.
If you do have a lapse, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world as you will be able to get things back under control. The danger is that even just one cigarette can reawaken your nicotine receptors, the part of your brain which demands and desires nicotine, and this can lead to the return of strong cigarette cravings.’
Q. What should you do if you are tempted to light up a cigarette at any stage during your recovery?
‘In a word, don’t! There are no benefits to it. Your life will not be improved by it. In the clear light of day you will regret it. So hang on in there and don’t pick up a cigarette.
Call a Quitline counsellor who can help you understand why you are having this thought and how you might handle it. Has the desire been building up for some time or has it appeared out of the blue? By thinking of the bigger picture, the thoughts and the feelings involved, you will be able to work out a way through while remaining smoke free.’
If you’re stopping smoking this Stoptober or have recently given up and are interested in finding further information, head over to QUIT where you can find a wealth of useful information on the topic. Those struggling with stopping can call one of their advisors on 0800 002200 or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.