Dealing with a Smoking Relapse

You’ve committed to quitting smoking for good. Your first few days have been tough, but you’ve slowly got the hang of it. Then, out of nowhere, you light up and a smoking relapse occurs. Perhaps you take a cigarette from a friend, from a family member, or maybe you even bought a pack from the shop.

You’re not sure how it happened, but it did, and now you’ve reached a crossroads.

It would be so easy to go back to where you started—smoking five, ten, or twenty cigarettes per day. However, you can also use that one cigarette to quit smoking and avoid another relapse in the future. In fact, it can galvanise your commitment and help you conquer your addiction for good.

So, whether it’s been a few days or a few months, don’t beat yourself up about your relapse. Instead, use it to reaffirm your promise to kick the habit and live a happier and healthier life.

Dealing with Cravings

Especially within the first few days of quitting, nicotine cravings deliver a powerful urge to smoke. If you’ve already dealt with them before, you know just how strong they can be. However, if you’ve recently experienced a smoking relapse, then new cravings will depend on how many cigarettes you have smoked and over how long a period. If you’ve just had a drag or a single cigarette, then the good news is that you’re probably not going to get the same kind of cravings you did when you first quit. If your relapse has lasted longer, then you might have to deal with strong cravings for up to two weeks.

Either way, if you start to feel the craving, then nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) can help keep you on track. Using NRT products, alongside support from the NHS Stop Smoking Service, gives you the tools you need to quit—helping you to avoid a smoking relapse without suffering unnecessarily.

Knowing Your Triggers

Nicotine cravings alone are not the only reason for a relapse. For many people, there are multiple triggers that intensify cravings at certain times. By avoiding these situations, you can sidestep a smoking relapse. Triggers are usually different for everyone. However, most will fall into one of four categories:

Emotional Triggers

Smoking relapses are often triggered by intense emotions. Naturally, stress and anxiety are among the most common. However, excitement, happiness, feeling relaxed, and even feeling satisfied can also give you the urge to smoke. Boredom and depression are also highly emotional factors to consider, and while you can help relieve boredom and some of the associated cravings by going for a walk or getting some fresh air, anxiety and stress may be more challenging.

However, while many smokers believe that smoking actually helps them deal with stress, anxiety, boredom and depression, the opposite is true. Smoking actively increases stress1 by interfering with chemicals in the brain, raising anxiety levels when you crave a cigarette. It’s a vicious circle that keeps you locked into the habit of smoking, making you think that the only way to deal with your negative feelings is to continue smoking. Knowing this is key to breaking that circle.

Pattern Triggers

Pattern triggers are directly related to your smoking habits. Slip ups that occur when you quit smoking can commonly be caused simply by reverting back to your former routine. Pattern triggers include drinking alcohol or coffee, finishing a meal, taking a break from work, driving, and after having sex.

Being aware of these particular triggers is half the battle, and once you’ve identified your specific habits and routines, you can think about replacing the nicotine. Instead of a cigarette, why not try a piece of chocolate with your coffee (although not too much!), chewing gum after meal, or exercising on your break. Keeping your hands busy with a stress ball or even just texting a friend can also help.

Social Triggers

Social triggers are among the most difficult to manage, and often lead to a smoking relapse. They include any type of socialising, particularly with other smokers. Whether that’s going to a bar, a house party, a concert, or even a wedding, remember to be aware of the potential for temptation.

It is usually a good idea to tell friends and family that you are quitting, especially when it comes to social triggers. If they’re aware you’re trying to quit, they’re less likely to offer you a cigarette, and there are plenty of other ways they can help too. In particular, talking through those moments of rising anger or anxiety as your cravings dissipate can be a useful tool in avoiding a smoking relapse.

Withdrawal Triggers

Depending on the severity of your smoking relapse, or the number of years you have been smoking, withdrawal triggers have the potential to follow you around for quite a while. This type of trigger includes craving the taste of a cigarette, smelling cigarette smoke, feeling restless and needing to keep your hands busy, and even handling cigarettes, lighters, or matches.

NRT is an effective way to combat withdrawal triggers, providing you with relief from the strongest cravings so you can effectively stick to your commitment to quit. In fact, some studies have shown that using NRT is twice as effective and trying to quit cold turkey2.

Dealing with Triggers

Once you have successfully identified your triggers, you can begin to implement methods to deal with them. Try the following in tandem with nicotine replacement therapy products to help you deal with the cravings:

  • Talk about your emotions and feelings and ask for help.
  • Practice mindfulness techniques such as breathwork or meditation.
  • Exercise to relieve emotional strain and physical cravings.
  • Try replacements such as gum or sugar free sweets.
  • Keep your hands busy with a stress ball.
  • Avoid other smokers wherever possible.

Don’t Give Up Giving Up

The key to dealing with a smoking relapse when quitting is to remember the reasons why you wanted to quit in the first place. If you relapse, it’s not the end of the world, and staying positive and engaged with your goals can help keep you on track. Remember, don’t give up giving up!

If you relapse, make a list of the reasons you wanted to quit smoking in the first place. If you did this at the beginning of your stop smoking journey, then go over the list again and rewrite the benefits of quitting. This will help you keep your goals firmly in the front of your mind.

Be kind to yourself and don’t become despondent if you experience a smoking relapse. It is more common than you might think, and around 75% of smokers3 who are abstinent at 4 weeks relapse within 12 months. Take each day as it comes and accept that you’re only human.

Finally, don’t worry about the fact that you slipped up. Refer back to the dangers of smoking and how it affects your health. Get support from friends, family, or your local healthcare centre, and keep your cravings at bay with nicotine replacement therapy.

For more information on how to stick to your quitting plan and stop smoking, head to your local pharmacy for advice on NRT products—and remember, a relapse isn’t the end of the world, it just gives you another opportunity to improve next time!

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