Quitting smoking is rarely easy. Nicotine is highly addictive and withdrawing from it often leads to a number of symptoms. This article examines the various nicotine withdrawal symptoms you might experience and offers detailed advice on how best to beat these symptoms and win your battle with smoking.
What is Nicotine?
Nicotine is the substance that causes addiction to tobacco. Although a relatively mild stimulant, nicotine alters the balance of chemicals in the brain just like cocaine and caffeine. After inhalation, the nicotine rushes to the brain and takes effect within seconds.
The chemical change rapidly alters mood and concentration levels, often pleasurably – for example many smokers find a cigarette relaxes them. As a result many smokers become dependent on the nicotine rush, eventually resulting in addiction. Naturally the more you smoke, the greater dependency your brain develops on the nicotine. However, over time the brain requires increasingly higher levels of nicotine – and therefore more cigarettes – in order to satisfy its craving. For more information see Why is it Difficult to Quit Smoking?
Withdrawing from Nicotine
The greater your dependence on nicotine, the harder you will find giving up smoking. Quitting nicotine is not easy, and for a couple of weeks you might experience a number of symptoms that make your life unpleasant. This is because your brain is trying to adjust to the absence of the nicotine it has become dependent on. Your brain is craving nicotine but the nicotine isn’t there.
The crucial thing to remember is these symptoms will not last forever. Most will start within a day, occasionally hours, of your last cigarette but should disappear between two weeks to a month. Generally the withdrawal symptoms will peak in intensity three to five days after you quit.
Common symptoms include:
• lack of concentration
• increased hunger
• weight gain
It is unlikely you will experience all these symptoms but you may certainly experience a few. Irritability, lack of concentration and increased hunger are particularly common.
While the withdrawal symptoms can undoubtedly be unpleasant, it is how you tackle your nicotine cravings that will ultimately determine whether or not you win your battle to quit smoking. There are two types of cravings:
• Background cravings. The constant desire for a cigarette always present in the back of your mind. It isn’t particularly overwhelming but nonetheless it is always there. Background craving decreases in intensity over several weeks after quitting.
• Intense cravings. A sudden and gripping urge to smoke. Intense cravings are often prompted by a trigger such as alcohol, strong feelings of happiness or depression, an argument, stress, or even a cup of tea or coffee. Although they get less frequent over time, intense cravings can occur many months or even years after quitting.
Beating your cravings
You can’t help getting cravings but you can ensure you beat them. Very few people are able to quit nicotine ‘cold turkey’, without the help of medicines or nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). Indeed research shows smokers who use NRT or medicines are significantly more likely to quit. Details of these two methods, and highly useful behavioural techniques, can be found below. For further information visit How to Stop Smoking.
Nicotine replacement therapy
Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) is nicotine without the cigarette – and therefore without the health risks that cigarettes bring. Although NRT won’t give you the same satisfaction provided by a cigarette, it will help reduce cravings. Your overall withdrawal symptoms should be less unpleasant if you use NRT as your body will get some of the nicotine it craves.
NRT is available in a number of forms. The most well-known is probably the patch. The patch steadily releases nicotine into your system over a period of hours, which makes it ideal for combating background cravings. For intense cravings nasal spray and mouth spray are better suited as they release nicotine in quick, short bursts. You can also get NRT as gum, lozenges, microtabs and inhalers.
Stop smoking medicines
You can also get medicines as an alternative to NRT. The prescription tablets Zyban and Champix both help you stop smoking. Zyban and Champix are used in combination with motivational support techniques. Neither contain nicotine. Instead, they stimulate the same areas of your brain as nicotine to reduce cravings.
Both medicines require several days to work fully, so you need to start taking them for a week or two before you quit smoking. Zyban treatment lasts between seven and nine weeks, whereas Champix treatment lasts for twelve weeks. Both medicines are prescription-only so you will need to consult your GP before you can start taking either. Research shows Champix to generally be the more effective of the two and it has fewer side effects.
Changing your behaviour
Behavioural techniques are vital if you are to win the battle against smoking. Although NRT and stop-smoking medicines can help curb cravings, neither will completely eradicate them. Below is a list of techniques you might find useful in helping you quit smoking. You can use these techniques in combination with NRT or medicines.
Avoid the triggers: Consciously or subconsciously you smoke more at certain times. Maybe it’s when you wake up. Or after your morning coffee. Or watching TV. You need to try and break the association with smoking from your routine. So maybe keep some chewing gum by your bedside, ready for when your alarm sounds. Forgo your morning coffee, perhaps switch to tea or juice instead. Watch television from a different chair than usual, or give yourself an additional distraction like a Rubik’s Cube or crossword. This needn’t last forever – just until you have broken the association with smoking and no longer feel cravings at that certain time.
Exercise: Highly recommended. As well as being generally beneficial, exercise can help reduce your nicotine cravings and ease certain withdrawal symptoms. Since physical activity releases endorphins, exercise should also improve your mood and reduce stress. You can also burn off the extra weight that commonly occurs in people who quit smoking. Finally, exercise is a really good way of taking your mind off cravings. When the urge hits, take yourself to the gym or go for a jog.
Be prepared: Look down the calendar: you can probably work out what days and events are likely to bring on a craving. Birthdays, holidays, weddings and funerals are the obvious threats. You needn’t become a social recluse or cancel Christmas. Just make sure you are fully prepared should the craving strike.
Avoid smokers: Again, remember this isn’t for life. But in the first few weeks of quitting smoking perhaps it’s best not to go out with your mates who all smoke a packet a night. It’s highly unlikely all your friends smoke, so socialise with the ones who don’t during those crucial early weeks. If you find yourself in the company of smokers, don’t accompany them for their cigarette breaks. Stay in the pub or bar and have a packet of peanuts instead.
Be strong: Your cravings will almost certainly be at their worst in the first few weeks after quitting. Remember: they will pass. Should you succumb to an illicit cigarette, don’t beat yourself up or consider quitting an impossibility. Many people require several attempts before they kick the habit for good.
Outlast your cravings: Intense cravings hit hard. But they also pass pretty quickly – normally within a few minutes. Of course, if the craving hits in the morning meeting those minutes can feel like hours – especially as you might not have any NRT to hand. Willpower is key. Grit your teeth and you can outlast the cravings. And remember: it gets that little bit easier every time.
If you require further motivation to quit cigarettes, check out the Effects of Smoking.