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Dealing With Stress While Quitting Smoking

Quitting smoking can be a life-changing experience, in many different ways. For some, the process is a way of reinventing their entire lives; they may focus on becoming healthier and growing as a person. For others, the process can be an extremely stressful experience. Most people who smoke associate the process, at least loosely, with relieving stress or anxiety. However, research has proven this concept to be largely untrue.

In fact, research into nicotine withdrawal has identified that it is the nicotine withdrawal that causes anxiety and stress, rather than the nicotine relieving inherent stress that already exists. Because this can be difficult to differentiate, most people simply assume that smoking a cigarette is reducing their anxiety and stress. Instead, it is really the nicotine causing the very anxiety and stress that they experience in the first place. This creates a loop of negative emotions that can become enmeshed with the addiction itself.

This is evidenced in a comment by Steven Schroeder, MD; Schroeder is the director of the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center at the University of California, San Francisco. He says, “Nicotine withdrawal makes people feel jittery and anxious, which smokers often confuse with feeling stressed,” “Lighting up makes them feel better, not because that cigarette eases stress, but because it’s delivering the next dose of nicotine.”

Of course, breaking any addiction can also cause anxiety and depression, as well as a host of other symptoms. Because of this, many people who are quitting smoking find themselves inundated with more emotion than they normally would. In fact, it is stress that most frequently causes smokers to falter in their quitting attempts. But stress is not the only factor that can make quitting smoking difficult; changing brain chemical levels and each individual's brain chemistry can make the process difficult.

According to Bruce S. Rabin, MD, PhD, who is a medical director for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Healthy Lifestyle Program, "Stress releases a brain chemical called epinephrine, which interferes with the ability to focus and think clearly. When you’re trying to quit smoking, that can make it hard to stay focused on the goal." What this means is that you will need to develop coping skills and strategies to carry you through prior to quitting. This article will give 10 examples of ways you can cope, and get through your nicotine withdrawal successfully.


Be Kind to Yourself

When you are in the middle of a battle, debriding yourself for your issues won't help you to reach your ultimate goal of winning. The same can be said for quitting smoking. It is extremely important that you be patient and understanding with yourself. Your stress levels may magnify any issues that you have, making them seem much larger than they realistically are. You may feel as if you want to become angry at the slightest issue, but this is likely just a result of your newly adjusted brain chemicals. Remind yourself that this is a product of quitting smoking, and it need not be a permanent issue for you. This is something that will melt away with time; the further you get from smoking, the less likely this problem is to flare up.


Work Out Near-Future Issues


Taking the first tip in mind, you should try to work out any near-future issues before you begin the process of quitting smoking. The less triggers you have, the more easy it will be for you to handle the stress that comes with smoking. This may include paying bills, fixing items at home, or having talks with loved ones.


Don't Worry About The Long Future

While you should try to work out issues that may crop up in the near-future, you should try to refrain from worrying about issues that will not occur for months or years. Worrying about what you'll do or where you'll be 5 years from now won't help you to get through the present. If the problem is not immediate, it can wait until you've regained your footing and you are better equipped to consider it.


Get to Know Your Emotions

shutterstock_104731811There is no universal set of emotional symptoms; each person generally has their own specific symptoms that will be recognized if they become upset. However, there are usually a few standard common symptoms that people who are in the process of quitting smoking experience. These symptoms may include:

  • Headaches
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Anger
  • Mood changes
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Feeling "out of control"

At the first sign of any of these symptoms, you need to put coping skills other than smoking into practice.


Make a List of Activities You Enjoy

Quitting smoking is a really good time to get to know yourself, and what you really love to do. What is it that you are passionate about? What little things do you look forward to every single day? Perhaps you enjoy playing with the family pet, walking the dog, brushing the cat, or playing with your children. Maybe for you, it's curling up with a great movie or a book. Some people enjoy playing video games; others may prefer to get mired in their work. All of these can distract you from your cravings and stress, and can help to remind you that smoking was only one small part of your life.


Get Your Body Moving

While being in a high-anxiety or high-stress situation often feels like the last moment that you would want to exercise, getting moving has been shown to have a positive effect on the quitting process. In fact, exercise releases a brain chemical known as "endorphins." Endorphins are "feel-good" chemicals; they have a direct ability to reduce pain and focus you. Exercising can also give you somewhere to discharge your nervous energy. You don't need to strap on sneakers and run ten miles; in fact, you shouldn't if you are new to regular exercise. Even taking a 20-minute walk around the block can help to calm you down. Of course, you should always check with your physician before beginning an exercise regimen.


Practice Mindfulness and Calmness

While exercise can be a great way to immediately discharge nervous energy, mindfulness meditation and other calming techniques can be a great way to create a more permanent, positive change in how you think. There are a myriad of ways that ex-smokers can cultivate mindfulness; breathing exercises can have a significant effect on some individuals. Others may find benefit even further from mindfulness meditation, which can help ex-smokers to focus on the moment, rather than the future or past. It's much easier to quit when you only have to refrain from smoking for "just this moment," rather than thinking about how you may never smoke again. Taking things "one day at a time" has been shown to be much more effective.


Keep a Journal

Keeping a diary, journal, or other written dialogue with yourself can be extremely helpful when you are quitting smoking. In fact, having the ability to write down what's causing you stress can help you to rationalize it, deal with it, and let go of it much faster. Free writing can be particularly helpful for those quitting smoking; in free writing, you simply sit down and start writing whatever thoughts are in your head, allowing one thought to continue into another. Many people are surprised at what is revealed in their writing after 15 or 20 minutes. Once your writing is done, you can crumple it or even burn it to symbolically "release" the stress.


Create a Support Plan

Having friends, therapists, or other supportive individuals in your life will help you to stay on track. Make a list of supports that you can turn to in times of great need; if you find yourself in crisis, you can start with the first on the list, and work your way down. This list may also include supports that are not individuals; for some people, listening to their favorite music, taking a bath, or petting their cat may be relaxing and helpful. Others may prefer to express themselves creatively. The point is to have at least several different coping skills and helpful actions you can remind yourself to take part in, should you become extremely stressed. This takes away the need to come up with solutions in "the heat of the moment."

These tips can help to ensure that you make it through quitting smoking successfully, coming out on the other side healthier. Above all else, make sure to remind yourself frequently that smoking is an addiction, and addictions take time to break. The first few weeks are likely to be the most difficult for you. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it is possible to walk through the tunnel without experiencing severe anxiety.

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