How to manage cravings when giving up smoking

So, you’ve decided to quit smoking. You know where you want to end up, a smoke free life, but you also know exactly how strong the urge to smoke a cigarette can be.

Managing the cravings that come with quitting smoking requires more than a ‘toughen-up’ mentality, it’s not easy to deal with cravings. In fact, only 3 in every 100 smokers are able to stop smoking permanently through a cold-turkey approach1.

This means the majority of quitters, if they leave their cigarette cravings untreated, will suffer a smoking relapse1. So, take a proactive approach to controlling your cravings to improve your chances of quitting smoking.

Different types of craving

The craving sensations you feel when quitting smoking often come from both the loss of the perceived benefits of smoking, and partly as a direct result of nicotine withdrawal.

While the urge to smoke will get less frequent the longer you go without smoking, you can still find yourself feeling intense craving even months after your last cigarette.

These cravings can be classified into two different types of craving:

  • A sudden intense craving – usually initiated by a trigger, such as stress2, alcohol3, or a social occasion
  • A steady background craving – this will slowly fade in the first few weeks after your last cigarette1

How to control cravings for smoking

Controlling the cravings from cigarettes requires willpower. However, using support services and quit smoking aids can improve your chances of conquering the urge to smoke. The NHS recommends three ways to control cravings for smoking:

Choose one of these approaches, or a combination of approaches, to maximise your ability to control the cravings from stopping smoking.

Controlling cravings with Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT)

NRT products are the products you’ll often see sold through some supermarkets and pharmacies. They work by giving your body a dose of nicotine to help you control the cravings, without the toxic chemicals that you find in cigarettes.

Today, they come in a huge variety of formats including nicotine patches, lozenges, mini lozenges, gum or sprays. This means you can choose a format that works for your lifestyle or the approach you wish to take.

Patches traditionally release nicotine more slowly, while products, like lozenges, will act more quickly. A common approach is to combine patches to help deal with the steady background craving, and a quick-working product to tackle sudden intense cravings. Evidence suggests that using a combination of NRT products is more effective than using a single product to reduce cravings4.

Some NRT brands offer a 8-10 week quit smoking step-down programme to help you find the product that is right for you at your stage of the quitting journey.

Prescription medicines

There are prescription medicines available to help you control cravings when quitting smoking. These are only available with a prescription, so you need to contact your doctor or stop smoking advisor to see if these products are right for you.

Change behaviour to control cravings

Unfortunately, no matter how much support you get, at some point you will probably experience an uncomfortable craving while quitting smoking. This will require willpower to conquer. However, there are lifestyle changes you can make that can reduce the occasions you expose yourself to temptation, and to give you the best chance of resisting the urge when it does strike.

These changes don’t have to be permanent, they can be used just when the withdrawal symptoms are strongest to help you avoid that dreaded smoking relapse.

Know your Triggers

Have a think about what events or times of day you often have a cigarette. It may be in the morning after coffee, when you go to the pub with your friends or just as a way to unwind at the end of the day.

The chances are you probably strongly associate these activities with smoking. As a result, they act as a trigger for smoking. Think about avoiding these activities while you quit, or doing something different in order to break the association.

Get active

A good option for a different activity when you are avoiding triggers is to exercise. Not only will it act as a distraction, but physical activity can help to reduce your nicotine cravings.

If you are quitting smoking for health reasons, then combining stopping smoking with exercise is a great opportunity for double the benefits. It will also help you to keep your weight down during the quitting journey1.

Plan for the cravings

Life doesn’t stop when you quit smoking, you’ll still be out socialising and living your life.

However you might not have experienced some situations, like going out for drinks, as a non-smoker before. This means you might still associate them with smoking. So be prepared for when the craving hits. Have an action plan for what to do, or pack some quick-working NRT products, such as lozenges, for quick relief.

Remember your reasons for quitting

There are lots of reasons to quit smoking, think back to the reasons you chose to quit and remember them when the craving strikes.

It can be helpful to write down a list of reasons you chose to quit and refer back to it from time-to-time during the quitting journey.

The ‘5 Ds’

Alongside big behaviour changes there are little mental tricks you can use to give yourself the best chance to resist the urge for another cigarette.

One approach to help to deal with the cravings is a technique called the ‘5 Ds’5. Whenever, craving strike use one of the following tactics to help control the urge to smoke:

  1. Distract – See if you can focus your mind on something else. This might be calling a friend, playing a game on your phone, or planning your next holiday. Whatever it is that might take your mind off smoking.
  2. Delay – Intense cravings are usually temporary, so while it might be hard, it will normally be short lived and pass in a few minutes.
  3. Deep Breaths – Stress can be a trigger for smoking2. So, taking a few moments to calm yourself can reduce the feeling of needing to smoke.
  4. Drink Water – Another way to distract yourself is by drinking water, it can help you to feel full and gives you something to do rather than light up a cigarette to give time for the craving to pass.
  5. Discuss – if you are struggling it can be helpful to chat with someone you trust. This can help to distract you from the craving and give you the extra bit of support you need until the feeling fades. This is one reason why Stoptober with its community of like minded quitters and support groups can be a great time to make a quit attempt.

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