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Brittany B., a senior at Oklahoma City University, had her first cigarette when she was 17. It started small, something she did every couple of days with friends. “When I smoked, it wasn’t like a pack a day,” she explains. “It was a social thing for me.”
Smoking helped Brittany focus on homework and relax after a long day. Sometimes she would hop into her car, go for a long drive, and smoke. However, it wasn’t long until the occasional cigarette became more than just a stress-reliever.
“I never felt like I was addicted, but I never wanted to stop,” she says. “Looking back, I know I was addicted in a sense.” The reality of the risks hit her, and she decided it was time to stop.
Brittany made the same decision that 65 percent of smokers in the U.S. made last year: the decision to quit. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2011 Morbidity and Mortality Report, the number of ex-smokers has been higher than the number of current smokers since 2002. So, what are some of the obstacles that keep people from quitting successfully?
Dr. Andrea Villanti, a research investigator at the Steven A. Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at the American Legacy Foundation, says that while there has been an overall decline in smokers over the past 10 years, young adults have been smoking at higher levels. Unfortunately, early adulthood is when behaviors are established for the rest of a person’s life. As Dr. Villanti notes, “It’s important to quit [as soon as possible] to stay away from the health risks.”
But most young smokers don’t consider themselves “heavy-hitters” when it comes to smoking, Dr. Villanti says.“It’s a social event. They don’t really consider themselves smokers.”
Rochelle J., a sophomore at Montana State University in Billings, says she smokes in social settings to get a “relaxing feeling,” but it’s not something she does every day. As she explains, “Every time I’m stressed out I [don’t] smoke.” Dr. Villanti calls tobacco users like Rochelle “intermittent” smokers, as opposed to “established” smokers.
Whether you smoke when socializing, to maintain your weight, or to blow off steam from a tough week, you’re associating cigarettes with something you want, or need, to do. These psychological connections are a key to understanding why you smoke, and therefore, what might help you stop.
Regardless of frequency, it’s the physical and behavioral addiction that causes even the most causal smokers to increase how much and how often they smoke, and Dr. Villanti says nicotine addiction is something that happens early on.
Research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse describes the effects of nicotine on the body like that of an “award system.” It increases the amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine in a smoker’s brain. Dopamine is responsible for those good, satiated feelings you have after eating, or engaging in a stress-reducing activity. Smoking creates those same pleasant feelings, and the dopamine levels of a smoker can permanently change the brain over time, resulting in addiction.
Plus, Dr. Villanti says smoking can also be associated with things you do (and enjoy), causing a behavioral addiction along with the physical one. In a New York Timesquestion and answer session with Dr. David B. Abrams, executive director of the Steven A. Schroeder National Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at the American Legacy Foundation, Dr. Abrams explained that the psychological effects of nicotine are the reason why people hang on to the habit as long as they do.
The nicotine in cigarettes does enhance the brain’s activity. This is what keeps smokers smoking. If not for the laundry list of health risks, “it’s almost the perfect drug,” Dr. Abrams said.
You Can Quit
Any health professional will tell you that now is the best time to stop smoking. With the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout and the BACCHUS Network’s corresponding Collegiate Smokeout coming up, there is plenty of support to stop smoking.
So, how do you do it?
Cut and Paste: Alternatives to Smoking
A 2010 Yale University study looked at the associations between stress and smoking, and found that cigarettes are a way to “self-medicate.” Meaning, a hit of nicotine reduces the negative physical and psychological impact that stress can have on the brain, the body, and your emotions. It becomes a way to achieve homeostasis.
So not surprisingly, a recent Student Health 101 survey of students across the country found that stress is the primary reason students say they smoke. Devin M., a sophomore at Oklahoma City University, describes it like taking a bubble bath, only quicker.
“When I had a stressful day I would think, ‘I just need to get off campus and get a cigarette’,” she says. “That shouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind.”
More ideas on how to quit
Manage StressStress is a normal part of life. If you smoke to let off steam or quiet your mind, try one of these healthy ways to relax.
- Meditate. This can be as simple as sitting quietly and focusing on taking slow, deep breaths.
- Get moving. Exerting yourself physically is one of the best ways to let go of tension. Find an activity that gets you pumped and having fun.
- Talk with friends. Being around other people (who don’t smoke!) will keep you occupied and also trigger your brain to relax.
- Take a soothing bath or shower. You can’t smoke under water… and the warm steam and water fl ow will ease your muscles and mind.
- Hug. Being close with other people releases brain chemicals that make you feel happy (much like nicotine).
- Enjoy some healthy, crunchy food. Things like carrots, arugula, and nuts will keep your mouth busy. Eating stimulates the neurotransmitters responsible for feeling satisfied, just like nicotine. Mindful munching—where you pay attention to your chewing and the taste, texture, and smell of the food—will also help you relax your mind.
Similar to Brittany, Devin realized that smoking didn’t get rid of her stress; instead, it added to it. “For however long I was smoking I would feel better, but it was also a reason for my stress,” she says. “It came to the point where I would be smoking and think, ‘I could get cancer.’” That’s not a particularly relaxing thought.
Dr. Villanti has observed that people have more success with quitting when they disassociate the act of smoking from the situations and activities that triggered their use, such as social activities.
Brittany says that one way she stopped seeing cigarettes as a part of her everyday life was to make a rule that she would not smoke in her car. She stopped using driving and smoking as her “escape route.”
Dr. Villanti explains that having a cigarette provides people with a “designed break.” In most cultures, it’s acceptable to take a pause from work or other situations to go have a cigarette.
In social situations, stepping out for a smoke gives you time alone—to think about your interactions—or with your posse of smoking friends. Especially in places where smoking isn’t allowed indoors, being forced outside can make for a bonding experience.
Time out for a cigarette is also allowed in many workplaces. Emily S., a senior at Radford University in Virginia, notes, “Where I work, smokers get a 5-10 minute break every two hours, while the non-smokers are continuously working. If the non-smokers were to go outside for 5-10 minutes they would probably get in trouble.”
Kristin W., a graduate of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, explains that to quit while in school, she cut out some of her “down time.” Rather than arriving someplace 10 minutes early, allowing time to smoke, she would schedule herself to arrive exactly on time so she couldn’t have a cigarette.
Without a substitute, though, it’s very tempting to return to something that works, even if it’s an unhealthy choice. So, if smoking is your way to deal with stress, find some alternatives and start integrating them into your life. What if, instead, you got up and took a walk or did some deep breathing exercises if tension is building?
If you’ve been smoking to reduce your appetite and manage your weight, try focusing instead on eating a healthful, balanced diet and being physically active. Many people find that when they have a craving for a cigarette, they’ll get out and exercise. This keeps them occupied and also accomplishes their goal of staying fit. It also provides motivation to stay healthy, since physical activity is more challenging as a smoker.
More alternatives for maintaining a healthy weight
- Eat small, nutritious meals throughout the day. Your body will have a consistent release of fuel and it will prevent sudden drops in blood sugar, which can trigger the desire for sweets, or a cigarette.
- Carry healthy snacks. This will stave off the desire to eat something you don’t really want, and will also give your mouth something to do instead of smoke.
- Keep busy. Always having something to do, especially if you look forward to the activities, will re- duce opportunities to sit and eat mindlessly. Feeling engaged and occupied will also distract you from the desire to smoke.
- Get physical. As Olivia Newton John famously suggested, movement makes us feel good, and it burns calories too.
- Allow yourself some treats. Depriving yourself of the pleasure of rich fl avors and textures is a recipe for strong cravings. Instead, have a bit of dark chocolate or your favorite indulgence; studies have shown that three bites of a desired food are all it takes for you to feel satiated. In moderation, this will satisfy the “pleasure center” in your brain, therefore reducing the desire to go overboard—or have a cigarette.
No Need to Be Alone
Dr. Villanti says the first thing a person should do when trying to quit smoking is to seek support from a health care provider, friends, and family. One of the greatest challenges for students is the perceived need to quit cold turkey: all at once, with no support.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2011 Morbidity and Mortality Reportindicates that getting advice from a professional not only increases a person’s number of attempts (and motivation) to quit, it also ups rates of success for cessation. It’s smart to work toward eliminating cigarettes from your life gradually, and with the help of medical resources like a nicotine patch and/or cessation counseling. Check with your campus health center or health care provider to see if a smoking cessation program is offered.
According to BecomeAnEx.org, a Web site designed to help people quit smoking, 97 percent of people who try to quit without any outside help fail within the first six months. Luckily, there are numerous Web sites, hotlines, and other programs that provide strategies for smokers to get through the cravings. Your school’s health center may offer medical resources and cessation support from a health educator and/or counselor.
Finding activities that offer healthy alternatives to smoking is definitely possible. Brittany B. discovered that opening up to friends is the best way to relieve her stress, rather than smoking by herself. Devin M. says she takes a shower to relax after a rough day, and spends her time with people who encourage her with healthier habits.
No matter what path you choose to quit smoking, there is always someone there to help. In addition to your school’s resources, all states have a cessation quit line, and there are numerous organizations dedicated to helping smokers become ex-smokers. Free of cigarettes, you’ll have more time, energy, and money to spend doing things that truly take care of your needs.
- Think about the reasons you smoke. Do you use cigarettes for stress-relief, to manage your weight, or when socializing?
- Consider the reasons you’d like to quit. These can help motivate you to create a plan.
- Find healthier alternatives for meeting the needs cigarettes fulfill.
- Seek support. You’ll have much more success than if you try to quit alone.
- Family, friends, and health professionals are all important resources. You can also consult state and national quit lines and Web sites.
Get help or find out more
Smokefree.gov’s SmokefreeTXT program