Quitting Cold Turkey: The Ultimate Guide

Going cold turkey is one of many ways people try to quit smoking. To some, it conjures up visions of horrible withdrawal, to others it represents masculinity or mental fortitude. There is no cure-all that works for everyone trying to quit, because each quitting experience is as unique as the person trying to kick the habit. Each smoker has different factors tied to their habit, and different obstacles to overcome during the quitting process. Our goal is to provide practical tips and advice that you can adjust to your own needs, but hopefully they will increase the chances of you finally moving past cigarettes into a healthier future.

Cold Turkey

Getting Started

As obvious as it may seem, the first step to quitting is simply to be ready to quit. Most smokers know that they should quit, but coming to the realization that they are truly ready to do so can be tricky. Without the desire to quit, any method that is used is likely to be doomed from the start. Some smokers attempt quitting multiple times, using multiple methods, and end up discouraged or simply afraid to go through the withdrawal process again. Past failures must be put aside, and fears need to be recognized for what they are – the nicotine addiction speaking up and keeping a person bound to the habit.

One way to prepare is to become educated about nicotine addiction. Although it is easy to use the word addiction in a casual manner, the addiction itself is serious and needs to be addressed. In the opinion of many people, nicotine addiction is as bad or even worse than addiction to substances like heroin. It is important to take the time to learn about the physiological effects of nicotine because it is easier to understand and work through problems if the mechanics of it are understood.

Planning It Out

Time to Quit

Withdrawal is going to happen. There is no getting around that. Symptoms of withdrawal can be managed, in both the short and the long term. Week one is usually the hardest for many smokers since this is when the physical dependence on nicotine is at the forefront. Initial withdrawal can begin in less than an hour after having a cigarette. In order to keep nicotine levels in the blood at what has become a ‘normal’ volume, the first withdrawal symptoms will be cravings for a cigarette. These cravings may seem constant, particularly over the first three days, but after that cravings slowly begin to decline.

Tips for working through cravings:

  • Drink water when cravings begin.
  • Use distraction methods.
  • Remember that the craving is short lived.
  • Breathe deeply and slowly.
  • Use logic to dismiss the demands of the craving.

Other common physical withdrawal symptoms include headache, dizziness, fatigue, cough, excessive mucous production, and stomach upset. Again, the first week should see the end of these symptoms, and many people find them to be a mild discomfort at worse. Most are symptoms of the body returning to normal and working to reverse the damage done by nicotine.

Most smokers who have tried to quit but failed tend to note that the psychological withdrawal symptoms to be far worse than the physical. Extreme mood swings, anxiety, anger, even depression, are all commonly reported. These emotional roller coasters work alongside the cravings and reinforce the idea that nicotine use is necessary to be ‘normal’, ‘calm’, or ‘happy’. Relapse becomes an easy option when rationalizing that just one cigarette is the only thing necessary to feel good again.

Don’t Do it?

Smokers going cold turkey are more likely to cheat or relapse on their quit smoking plan than those who use nicotine replacement therapy. The urge to have a puff or two, or even to smoke an entire cigarette is easy to give into. Addiction is addiction, however. Introducing any amount of nicotine back into the system immediately ramps up the addiction. Relapsing immediately places the quitter back at square one in the withdrawal process. Nicotine addiction easily convinces the brain to utilize every rationalization as to why ‘just one’ could or should be had. Having rebuttals on hand can help quell the urge to relapse.

Common Relapse Thoughts and Responses

“Just one won’t hurt./Yes, it will. Reintroduction causes withdrawal timeline to reset itself.”

“I deserve one for doing so well/No. You deserve to have a healthy life. Find another reward.”

“I need one to calm down./Nicotine is a short-lived mask on a problem, not a solution. Cigarettes do not ease stress.”

“People using nicotine replacement therapy still get nicotine, and so should I./People using nicotine replacement therapy have their own plan, and nicotine levels in nicotine replacement therapy are not the same as in a cigarette, nor do they act as quickly in the body as smoking.”

If relapse does happen, it is best to not allow it to be discouraging. Relapsing is a setback, not a complete failure. Self-knowledge gained through relapsing can be used to combat the urge during the next round.

Other Tips and Tricks

Smoking, as a habit, pervades daily life. Simple day to day tasks tend to revolve around smoking, and has become as much a part of the routine as getting dressed for work or eating breakfast. Changing the routine is one way to sidestep common triggers. If certain places, people, or things are known triggers, avoid them. Coffee and alcohol often go hand in hand with cigarettes. In the first few weeks, it may be best to avoid these types of things. The same goes for friends and places. Avoiding friends that still smoke is a good way to keep temptation away, and staying away from certain places where smoking was part of the atmosphere is also important.

Let friends and family in on it. Having a strong support network is crucial when making any big life change. Encouragement from a close circle is a reminder that quitting is very important, otherwise it wouldn’t even be noticed. They can also foster accountability, reinforcing the plans or rules that have been shared.

Celebrate! Setting milestones and allowing small rewards brings positive reinforcement into the equation.

Look for other positive changes. Taste and smell improves rapidly after quitting. These new senses help to illustrate how much smoking has taken away from enjoying life. With this new sense of smell, the offensive odor of smoking can also easily be detected. Smelling cigarette smoke as a non-smoker is one powerful reason to quit.

The End Result

Whether quitting cold turkey or using Nicotine Replacement Therapy, quitting completely and for good is the desired outcome. Some say that cold turkey is better, allowing nicotine to leave the system quickly when compared to weeks of gradual reduction with most nicotine replacement therapies. Others contend that the severity of the withdrawal without any ease or comfort makes quitting so hard that pushing through it is almost impossible without nicotine gum or nicotine patches. Whatever the plan or the method, every attempt or success is worthwhile. Many of our visitors have been happy with replacing their nicotine intake by using electronic cigarettes. Our guide to electronic cigarettes can be found here.