Many ex-smokers say quitting was the hardest thing they ever did. Yet millions of people have been able to do it—and you can, too.
Nicotine in tobacco is addictive. When you quit, the level of nicotine drops in your body. Because of addiction, your body wants more nicotine. Withdrawal is the way your body reacts to not having the nicotine it’s gotten used to. Withdrawal feels different for every smoker.
Intense cravings for nicotine
Drowsiness or trouble sleeping
Bad dreams or nightmares
Feeling tense, restless, or frustrated
Increased appetite and weight gain
Symptoms can start within two to three hours after your last cigarette.
You can learn ways to manage withdrawal, and there are medications that can reduce the symptoms in the early weeks and months after you quit.
Smoking triggers are “high risk” situations or cues that bring on the urge to smoke. There are four types—most people experience at least one of each.
Emotional Triggers. Many people smoke when they have intense emotions. An emotional trigger reminds you how you felt when you used smoking to enhance a good mood or escape a bad one, like when you were stressed, anxious, excited, bored, down, happy, lonely, satisfied, or cooled off after a fight.
Pattern Triggers. A pattern trigger is an activity that you connect with smoking. Some examples include talking on the phone, drinking alcohol, watching TV, driving, finishing a meal, drinking coffee, taking a work break, after having sex, and before going to bed.
Social Triggers. Social triggers are occasions that usually include other people who smoke. Like going to a bar, going to a party or concert, seeing someone else smoke, or celebrating a big event.
Withdrawal Triggers. If you’ve been a long-time smoker, your body is used to getting a regular dose of nicotine. These triggers could include craving the taste of a cigarette, smelling cigarette smoke, or needing to do something with your hands or mouth. Handling cigarettes, lighters, and matches can also be withdrawal triggers.
Knowing your triggers helps you learn what causes cravings. And then you can make a plan to manage them.
Avoid external triggers. Go places and do things where smoking and tobacco isn’t allowed.
Dealing With Triggers and Cravings
There are lots of ways for you to manage triggers and cravings.
Medications can reduce your withdrawal symptoms and double your chances of quitting for good. VA offers veterans all FDA-approved quit smoking medications.
Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT): Patches, gum, and lozenges are types of NRT. The patch is a long-acting form of NRT that releases a small, steady amount of nicotine through the skin. This helps satisfy your craving for nicotine. Gum and lozenges are a short-acting form of NRT. They release a small amount of nicotine into the lining of your mouth. You can use combination NRT—a long-acting form and a short-acting form—to fight cravings. You can get NRT from your VA health care provider or from your local pharmacy without a prescription.
Bupropion SR: This medication doesn’t contain nicotine. You do need a prescription to get it. It can help with withdrawal. And you can combine these pills with NRT for better results.
Varenicline: This medication doesn’t contain nicotine. You do need a prescription to get it. It can help with withdrawal and helps block the effects of nicotine from cigarettes if you start smoking again. Varenicline is not used in combination with any other medication.
VA patient medication guides describe how to use quit smoking medications.
You can use medications and other strategies to deal with triggers and cravings. In fact, taking a combination approach helps boost your chances of success. Take a look at some examples of physical things you can do to manage withdrawal.
Get active! Exercise is another solid tool for managing both cravings and stress. Even 10 minutes of activity can go a long way toward helping you manage cravings and stress.
Avoid Trigger Locations
For the first few weeks after you quit smoking, you may find it helpful to avoid places that trigger strong cravings. Go to places that don’t allow smoking—like shops, movie theaters, or any smokefree restaurants.
Make a Substitution
Replace smoking with a substitute behavior.
Chew gum, eat sugarless candy, or suck on a cinnamon stick.
Take up activities that keep your hands busy, like squeezing a handball, doing bead work or needlework, or handling a silver dollar or “worry stone” that you keep in your pocket.
Do your favorite type of exercise to distract you from smoking.
Dealing with Stress and Emotions
You can’t just get up and walk away from a trigger, but there are still many things you can do.
Listen to calming music.
Take a mini vacation. Imagine you are in a place that you like to go to where you feel calm and safe. For some people, it is by the beach or in the mountains. Or it might be sitting on your own porch. Slow down your breathing and imagine what it would be like to be there: what you would see, hear, smell. Allow yourself to be there for 10 minutes or more.
Practice what you already do! In today’s world, you will find yourself in many places where smoking is not allowed (restaurants, churches, ballparks, movie theaters, just about everywhere). What do you do to keep yourself from smoking there? If you stop to think about it, you probably have many skills already, and you can use them when cravings come up.
Find more ways to manage stress and emotions without smoking
Commit to quit. Using quit smoking medications doesn’t mean that you aren’t strong enough. Medications can strengthen some people’s commitment to quitting.
Slips and Relapses
Quitting is tough. And many people slip up—they have one or two cigarettes. That’s a common part of quitting. If you have a slip, it could be harder for you to stay smokefree.
A slip is different from a relapse. A relapse means going back to smoking regularly.
You can learn from slips. They’re just temporary setbacks. You have not failed, and you’re not back to square one. A slip doesn’t make you a smoker again. It’s also not an excuse to relapse.
Prepare yourself to recover from slips and avoid a relapse. Counselors at 1-855-QUIT-VET can help you make a plan.
Need support? Get help on your quit journey.