Myths about Quitting Smoking

"Friends told me that going cold turkey was the only way to quit smoking.
Others shared stories about friends who got fat when they quit smoking."
Déirdre Kennedy
LTQ Contributing Editor

As if there weren’t enough anxiety around quitting smoking, friends often volunteer advice about how to do it – even if they’ve never quit themselves or never even smoked. But often the most strident advice-givers were the born-again non-smokers who had forgotten how many times they tried to quit themselves before they finally succeeded.

I used believe people who told me that using nicotine gum or patches would just prolong the addiction. “You have to make a clean break,” they’d say. “Just throw away the cigarettes and stop. Period.”

I did stop cold turkey… several times. Fueled by the fear of lung cancer, I’d decided to kick the addiction through brute force and self-control. Once I smoked as many cigarettes as I could the day before I quit to make myself totally sick –a DIY nicotine aversion treatment. Being disgusted with myself carried me through the first few weeks, even months. The problem was, I’d eventually start smoking again when things got intolerable, or the other myth came true:

Everyone gets fat when they quit smoking. “Your metabolism grinds to a halt,” friends told me. “For women, it’s even harder to keep the weight off, especially if you’re over 30, you can never lose it again.” I’d been thin most of my life; but I’d also smoked most of my life. Once I outgrew my entire wardrobe, I became miserable. They were right! Cigarettes were the only thing keeping me slim. 

Quitting smoking didn’t make me gain weight, eating made me gain weight. When I quit cold turkey by summoning all the self-loathing I could muster, I tried to bury my anxiety with snack foods. Instead of chain smoking a pack of Dunhill Reds, I’d pound down a couple of bags of white cheddar popcorn and poppy seed muffins.

When I went through Suzanne and Paul’s smoking cessation program in 2001, I didn’t think I could quit for good. But I have. They taught me how to cultivate a positive attitude about quitting. I agreed to try nicotine patches and used a Nicotrol inhaler instead of smoking that first cigarette that always started my habit again in the past. This time, I didn’t turn to overeating. I took up a strenuous yoga practice and weaned myself off other self-destructive habits. I stayed away from people who fed my negative feelings and hung out with people who were supportive and showed me how to keep changing for the better.  

by Déirdre Kennedy

LTQ Contributing Editor. Déirdre has  produced, written, edited, and voiced news features and radio programs since 1992.  Her stories have aired on National Public Radio, BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, Radio France International, Marketplace, Fresh Air, and on podcasts for Intel Labs, Reveal, Invisibilia, Newsweek, This American Life, and private clients. She‘s interviewed actors, scientists, filmmakers, authors, conservationists, visual artists, musicians, and health care experts. In 2005, she created and hosted the weekly show   “Animals Aloud,” for XM satellite radio. Her freelance production, editing and consulting services, are based in L.A., with outlets in San Francisco, London, Copenhagen, Seattle — anywhere she can set up a laptop and a microphone. 

Déirdre stopped smoking in 2002. 
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How Words Affect Your Motivation to Quit Smoking

By Suzanne Harris, RN

When we are about to make a major lifestyle change like becoming tobacco-free, the way we envision our goal can determine how successful we are in achieving it.  One patient who came to our clinic at UCSF for smoking cessation counseling had smoked for 40 years and never tried to quit before. He told me:

I can’t imagine never smoking again. I just don’t have any experience not smoking every day and the thought of quitting for good terrifies me.”

That patient had just received a serious cancer diagnosis and his physicians had told him he would have to stop smoking before undergoing surgery the following week. It was clear from our discussions that he had far more anxiety over quitting smoking than he did about the surgery or even his cancer diagnosis. Here he was facing one of the most stressful situations of his life and being told to give up the one behavior he’d relied on his whole life to manage stress.

I suggested we take that particular goal off the table and that he stop stressing himself with thoughts of never being able to smoke again. “Really”? he said. “But my doctor says I have to quit before he will do the surgery!” I asked him if he could imagine stopping just for the surgery and not putting pressure on himself to quit for good. He replied, “Well, yes, I can imagine doing THAT.”

We proceeded to put a plan in place based on stopping for the surgery and arranged for him to use nicotine patches, lozenges and a Nicotrol inhaler to ease the withdrawal from cigarettes. He actually found it rather easy to stop with multiple nicotine replacement products and counselling. By the time of his surgery, he had stopped smoking and decided to stay off cigarettes to improve his chances of recovery. Seven years later, he was still tobacco-free.

Maybe you can identify with this patient’s initial feelings. You might have gotten through some really tough situations in your life – but just the thought of quitting smoking fills you with anxiety or mild panic. That feeling might make you make you feel like smoking even more or want to put off quitting for now. But notice that it’s the “thought of quitting for good” or “never smoking again” that prompts the feeling of anxiety.  We’ve recorded a mental exercise to help you reframe how you think about your goals called “Have to or Want to.”

Listen to: Words that Motivate You to Quit

Suzanne Harris shows the power of "want to" vs "have to."

When we think I have to do something, it can raise feelings of resistance. Many of us don’t want to do what “we have to do.” You can have thoughts of, “Do I have to do it? I don’t want to do that.”

Try saying “I want to.” Let in that sink in to your system.

You are doing something that you want to do. You are in the driver’s seat. You have control. 

My name is Suzanne Harris and I am a registered nurse and a certified smoking cessation expert.

Want to hear Suzanne’s guided meditation on getting ready to quit smoking? Join our email list and we’ll send you the audio link plus more bonus materials and updates on LTQ events. (We never share your personal info.)

The Power of Addiction

Nicotine receptors in brain
Courtesy NIH: Nicotine Receptors in the Brain

By Paul Brunetta, MD

“Nicotine not only changes your brain chemistry, it also changes your brain structure by creating new nicotine receptors”

When you inhale nicotine, either by smoking tobacco or vaping e-cigarettes, the nicotine surges in your bloodstream and binds to nicotine receptors in your brain. That binding stimulates the release of a whole host of other chemicals that make you feel relaxed and can give you pleasure. Nicotine not only changes your brain chemistry, it also changes your brain structure by creating new nicotine receptors.

Nicotine hijacks your brain 

The more nicotine receptors you have over time, the more nicotine you need to feel the same effect, or just to feel normal. People who use nicotine regularly experience restlessness, anxiety and mood swings when they don’t have access to nicotine, much like the feeling of intense hunger.

Imagine a couple of baby chicks in a nest, chirping with open mouths and it’s your job to feed them. Give them a little food, and they quiet down right away. Now imagine that instead of two chicks there’s an ever-growing flock squawking at you incessantly – you need a constant supply of food! That’s how your brain’s nicotinic receptors work. They keep multiplying in response to surges of nicotine, and are only satisfied with the flood of nicotine that comes from inhaling a cigarette or vaping. Because nicotine is out of your bloodstream within a few hours, the hunger and ‘noise’ from the growing flock of receptors starts all over again.

How genetics affect your habit

We now understand that genetic differences cause some people to break down nicotine faster than others. If you are one of those people, you may need to smoke more cigarettes than someone else does to get the same effect. That is why some people might smoke less than half a pack, while others chain smoke two or three packs a day.

Another difference between smokers is that some have a much greater increase in the number of nicotine receptors on their brain cells than others. In a recent study, UCLA researcher Arthur Brody and his colleagues found PET scans of the brain showed that people with a larger increase in nicotine receptors had a more difficult time quitting smoking compared to people with fewer receptors. So it’s not your fault if you have great difficulty quitting your nicotine addiction – try not to blame yourself and feel isolated in this process.

Managing your cravings

These new findings about nicotine addiction explain why using nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs), alone or in combination with other support, can greatly reduce your most intense urges to smoke — if you use them properly and consistently and at the right dose. There are also two types of oral medications that can significantly improve your chance of quitting successfully.

  • NRTs and other therapies won’t reduce every urge, but they can reduce the discomfort until your urges naturally subside.
  • Your brain reduces the number of nicotine receptors and returns to a more normal state over several weeks to months.
  • During that time, if you start smoking or vaping again, your urge to smoke and your habit will likely be just as intense as before you quit because your nicotine receptors still dominate your brain chemistry.

The single most important thing you’ll ever do for your health as a smoker is to stop smoking. The earlier you do it, the greater the benefit. If you try to quit cold turkey and you find that you can’t, there are many more options to support you on your way to success.

Talk to your health care provider and start to review them together.

Cold Turkey Has Got You on the Run

By Paul Brunetta, MD

 February 19,  2019

No other artist conveys the agony of kicking heroin like John Lennon in his tortured lyrics for Cold Turkey:

My body is aching Goose-pimple bone
Can’t see no body
Leave me alone

My eyes are wide open
Can’t get to sleep
One thing I’m sure of
I’m in at the deep freeze

When Lennon wrote those words in 1969, he was a global rock star, revered, untouchable, brought to his knees by addiction like a common junkie. His title, “Cold Turkey” was first used more than a century ago to compare the clammy flesh of heroin withdrawals to the plucked skin of poultry.

Had it been a few years later, Lennon might have written a song about the joys of methadone, which became widely available in the Seventies as an option for weaning off heroin without the gruesome withdrawals.

These days, “cold turkey” can apply to quitting just about anything abruptly. But unlike kicking heroin, going cold turkey off cigarettes has become a badge of honor for some people. They might suggest to you that tapering off, using nicotine patches or gum, and medications like Chantix or Zyban – are “a waste of time” or like training wheels that you eventually have to go without.

One of the major promoters of going cold turkey is a British author named Allen Carr.  He launched his “Easyway” series of books and seminars on quitting smoking, quitting drinking and quitting everything else in the 1980s. Carr says you can quit smoking immediately without experiencing cravings, weight gain, or mood swings. All you need to do is reframe your relationship with cigarettes and stop.

Carr, who died in 2006, had no medical or scientific background, nor did his method. To be fair, he’s not the only self-appointed “expert” on quitting smoking. There are many motivational speakers who write books on how to do whatever their readers want to do. They know how to persuade readers that they are capable of doing the thing that the readers already want to do enough that they were willing to pay someone to tell them they can do it. But how long does that motivation last?

There’s nothing wrong with quitting cold turkey. Some people can stop smoking cigarettes and never pick them up again. If you can stop smoking successfully that way…that’s awesome!  But if you try and fail, it doesn’t mean that you can’t quit. It just means that cold turkey is not the right approach for you as an individual.

It does not mean that smokers who can quit cold turkey are somehow better or stronger than you are. Don’t let anyone convince you that it’s the only way to go. Some people’s level of addiction is higher than others. Tobacco use disorder is a recognized medical disease and for smokers who need more support there are nicotine replacement therapies and medications available to help ease withdrawals.

The single most important thing you’ll ever do for your health as a smoker is to stop smoking. The earlier you do it, the greater the benefit. If you try to quit cold turkey and can’t, there are so many more options now – you can learn to quit through other people’s experiences and a whole host of possible therapies. Talk to your health care provider and start to review them together.

In our next blog: Why nicotine is such a powerfully addictive substance.

We’ll describe how nicotine receptors in your brain respond when you smoke cigarettes or vape — and why it’s so easy to get re-addicted after not smoking for months or years.

Tips for a Tobacco-free Life

Training Your Brain

by Suzanne Harris, Co-author of Learning to Quit
February 12, 2019

After you’ve quit smoking for a while, you may find yourself unexpectedly craving a cigarette when you see someone smoke. It’s not unusual for the brain to automatically respond to triggers, but you can short-circuit those signals with the power of thought.

Develop and practice a short, positive statement you can repeat to yourself to help you stay positive and happy about your smoke free life.

A longtime member of our smoking cessation group noticed that whenever she saw someone smoking, a thought would arise: “I wish I could have that.” She decided to re-program her brain by changing the message to: “I’m so glad I don’t have to do that anymore.” At first, she didn’t’ really believe that statement, but as she repeated it over and over again, it became her truth.

Think of a phrase that would help reinforce your commitment to living tobacco-free.