Nothing can be more intense than the battle to resist that cigarette during day two or three of your quit. The urge can just be so powerful, so crushing, and any distractions you try to employ are temporary at best.
What are the best ways to deal with cigarette cravings when you’re trying to quit smoking?
1. Sleep – That’s right, my number one recommendation for dealing with those horrible cigarette cravings is to sleep right through ’em! This didn’t work for me the first time I tried it, because I had no extra incentive to sleep–other than that I wanted to escape withdrawal symptoms. To make this technique more effective, set yourself up so that you need a lot of sleep when you are going through the worst of your withdrawals.
Let’s say you quit smoking at noon today. When will the withdrawals be the worst for you? For most people, it’s going to be about 48 to 72 hours from the point of quitting. Knowing this, you can develop a sleeping strategy around these “killer withdrawal times.” What worked for me was to stay up all night on day two of my quit. I didn’t go to sleep at all, and stayed on my feet for almost 24 hours straight. During that time, I also exercised quite a bit in order to physically exhaust my body. Now this might sound like a lot of unnecessary torture, but the payoff to all of this effort is tremendous! You are setting yourself up to sleep right through the hardest part. It worked extremely well for me. I stayed up all night long and had to struggle to stay awake at times, and then my withdrawal symptoms started getting really nasty. That’s when I went to sleep for 14 hours straight. After this huge power nap, I woke up feeling much better, and I could tell that the worst of my withdrawals were over. This was a powerful revelation, that I had made it through the worst of it, and the feeling of relief was huge.
In order to use the sleep strategy, I planned ahead a couple of weeks, and put in for a vacation at work. This worked out really well for me, and I believe the sleep strategy was a critical part of my success at quitting.
2. Distraction – We can basically divide this category into two parts: distractions that work and distractions that don’t work. Obvious, right? So let’s break it down. For most people, watching a movie won’t cut it–they will be aching for a cigarette before the get through the opening credits. But going to the movie theater might be a different story. Smokers are already used to not smoking there, so it might be a worthwhile distraction. Anything physically engaging can be useful as well, but some things work better than others. For example, a stroll through the park might not distract you much from the urge to smoke. Perhaps you’re used to smoking as you walk through the park. But what about riding a ten-speed? Most people aren’t used to smoking while they ride a bike across town. So think about what will work for you in terms of distracting activities. Some are better than others, but it’s going to vary a bit from person to person.
There are lots of other distraction ideas out there for getting through your initial withdrawal. One is to plan a major family vacation, like a trip to Disneyland (or some other theme park). Camping is always a possibility as well. Again, don’t be afraid to think big, like taking a three week exploration trip through some jungle in South America. Go for something so outlandish and remote that you won’t even have the time or resources to consider the idea of smoking. Don’t just distract yourself a little….distract yourself a lot!
3. Oral Replacement Strategy – It took me several tries before I finally was successful at quitting smoking. The first few tries were absolutely horrible, and I could not stop fidgeting. My body was overwhelmed with nervous energy and anxiety. I felt like I was getting too much oxygen and my head was swimming. Getting some easy exercise, such as taking a long walk, was a great way to burn some of that energy off, but there were times throughout my first week of quitting when I had to sit still. During these down times when I wasn’t doing anything (and therefore was not distracted enough), I often had the urge to smoke, and I needed a defense mechanism. The oral replacement strategy consisted of two things: toothpicks to chew on, and sugar free candy and gum. If you can, go to a health food store and buy “Tea Tree Flavored Chewing Sticks” instead of regular toothpicks. They come in cinnamon and peppermint, and they are softer than regular toothpicks. Find sugar free gum and candy that you really like. In addition, find a pen that you like that has a “clicker” on the end of it (the button that retracts the ball point part). Carry the pen around and click the button when you get urges to smoke. Shop around and find suitable toothpicks, gum, candy, and pens that you like. Then go buy this stuff in bulk. No excuses. Be prepared with tons of supplies–in your coat pockets, in your home, at work, and in your car.
4. Reward Strategy – This requires that you plan ahead, and that your finances are in pretty good shape. The idea is to save up a sizable chunk of money, and set it aside for yourself when you plan to quit smoking. You don’t necessarily have to figure out what you’re going to spend it on. That is part of the fun, part of the reward. Just tell yourself that the 500 bucks you set aside for when you quit smoking is your reward money, and you’re going to splurge on whatever you want when you get, say, two weeks clean off of cigarettes. You could even have a trusted second party (like a spouse) hold onto the cash and let them know what the deal is. You get to splurge the money if (and only if) you make it to a certain length of clean time. Then, when you are going through horrible cravings and urges, use the “carrot-on-a-stick” thinking to remind yourself that you are working towards a big reward.
5. Food & Diet Strategy – Our bodies go through some wicked changes during the first two weeks of quitting smoking. Particularly, there is a danger of overeating, and the way your body metabolizes foods and sugars is going to change quite a bit. The first few times I tried to quit smoking, I went way overboard on the sweets, and stuffed myself with too much food to try and get through cigarette cravings, because it seemed to help at first. Twenty minutes later though you are practically dying from eating too much, and your body is all screwed up. In anticipation of this, you should prepare accordingly and do a couple of key things. One, keep yourself fed throughout the day. Don’t skip breakfast (or lunch) and don’t allow yourself to get too hungry. Stay fed. Eat slowly, eat frequently, and don’t pig out until you are stuffed. Tell yourself that you can quit eating while you are still a little hungry because your plan is to eat more frequently throughout the day. You will probably be craving sweets, but try to avoid eating junk food that is loaded with sugars. Instead, drink fruit juices–slowly and frequently–throughout the day. The idea is to keep yourself fed, with healthy foods, without going overboard and stuffing yourself silly. Slow and easy.
Notice that most of these strategies require some degree of planning. When I finally quit smoking for good (and made it stick), I had a lot of information from previous quit attempts. I knew what candy and gum and toothpicks would help. I knew that I was going to take a couple weeks off work and save up a bunch of reward money for myself. And I had my strategy worked out for how I was going to sleep through the worst of the withdrawals. Essentially, I was eliminating all possible excuses, and not giving myself any “outs.” I would have every opportunity and every resource available when I finally quit.
A Word About Time Distortion
Time distortion is a very real phenomenon that happens to people who are going through Nicotine withdrawal. What happens is that your perception of time gets distorted in a very severe manner–much like if you had taken hallucinogenic drugs. This makes you believe that you are experiencing one big constant craving for a cigarette, when in fact the cravings occur for only a few minutes at a time, which substantial breaks in between. But a smoker who has quit and is going through heavy withdrawal will not believe this, because their perception of time is distorted. It is a real phenomenon!
I can remember going through urge after urge, constantly obsessing over the fact that I was not smoking, and also obsessing over the fact that my urges seemed to be non-stop. As in, I never got a break from the constant craving to smoke. Or, at least I didn’t think that I got any breaks. Turns out this isn’t true. You can prove that your urges are not constant by using a stopwatch. Simply notice that you are craving cigarettes–start the stopwatch–then go back to whatever you were doing (reading a book, watching a show on television, etc.). At some point you will be distracted and notice that you are having another craving. At this point, you’ll remember the stopwatch, and you’ll see that some portion of time has gone by. Some of that time you were still “craving” the cigarette, but for much of that time, you were genuinely distracted. Hence, you can prove to yourself that the cravings are not entirely continuous, without any breaks whatsoever. It’s a neat trick, and it might help you to get through the worst of your withdrawals.
So plan ahead for your quit, and you can find ways to overcome your urges that will inevitably come up. Be creative. Be inventive. Find a way to reward yourself. Think big. Have fun with it.
Good luck on your quit.