Why so many people don’t succeed when they try to quit smoking: How to change your habits

This is an article specifically about quitting smoking, but the theory behind it can be applied to almost any habit change that you would like. We will start with a simple analogy, imagine this:

You are looking at a ceiling, and you see a hole with water leaking out of it, filling up the room that you are standing in with water. You rush over to the hole, and plug it as quickly as possible, and you succeed in plugging the hole. For some reason however, the water level around your ankles continues rising, but you don’t understand why. Eventually, plugging the hole is meaningless and you give up. You may try plugging the hole a few more times, but it won’t help much. Had you been looking at this situation from the outside, you could see that there wasn’t just one leak in the ceiling, but 3. Plugging only one of the holes was hard, tiring, and didn’t help stop the water from leaking.

What does this mean?

Many people smoke, but incredibly most of them don’t want to. It’s addictive, and they can’t pull themselves off of the habit. The vast majority of people who try to stop smoking fail within the first year, and of those who succeed a large number also get back to it within the second year. There are programs in many hospitals to help people stop smoking and they are based on a few main points that everybody trying to change a habit should understand. An addiction has a number of different aspects, and unless you attack all of the aspects of the addiction it is very difficult to succeed. Don’t understand just yet? Keep reading.

What are the 3 aspects to a smoking addiction?

  1. Physiological – This is the addiction to nicotine. Inside of our body we have cells with receptors to nicotine, a chemical which sits comfortably and plays a few natural roles in our nervous system for example. When someone smokes, raising the nicotine levels in their blood, the cells recognise the increased amount of nicotine and so they make more receptors, increasing our hunger for nicotine. If you then try to stop smoking immediately, the craving for nicotine is so much higher than in someone who doesn’t smoke, or who has never smoked. This is also true because of a neurological pathway which creates a kind of euphoria, or a ‘reward pathway’. The mesolimbic dopamine system gives us a good feeling, but when we stop smoking this good feeling starts dropping. Unfortunately when we smoke again the feeling comes back, teaching us that in order to feel better we need to keep smoking.
  2. Emotional – The last sentence of the physiological addiction starts to touch on the emotional point, but it goes deeper than that as well. When people smoke regularly, it starts to become an answer to bad moods. Some people who don’t smoke might better understand this point by thinking about comfort food, like chocolate which can often cheer us up for example. If we constantly eat chocolate when we are feeling down it creates an emotional need to use chocolate in order to bring us out of the depression that we’re feeling.
  3. Behavioural – You almost certainly know those people who only smoke when they drink, or need to have that cigarette with their morning coffee. There are endless examples of behaviours that people associate with smoking, like breaks from work, sex, and the list goes on. The point is that they are training themselves to expect a cigarette when they do the other behaviour. Pavlov demonstrated this remarkably when he rank a bell and taught his dog that he would get food with the bell. His dog then automatically started to salivate when Pavlov rang the bell, even when he didn’t provide food for the dog. When someone smokes constantly during the same type of behaviour (sex, work break, beer) they are training themselves to be dependant on the cigarette in order to properly experience the other thing that it is they are doing.

These are the 3 main aspects of addiction that are most commonly associated with smoking. When someone wants to quit smoking completely, they must relate to all 3 or these aspects simultaneously, and not just try to attack one of them. Simply using a nicotine patch for example is only dealing with the physiological addiction, but failing to address the emotional or behavioural side of things. Will power alone might be an attempt to attack the emotional addiction, while neglecting to address the physiological or behavioural.

Ready to start? Let’s learn what your options are to overcome the physiological addiction. 

When you’ve done that,  you can go on to tackle the behavioural addiction. 

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