Many people don’t truly recognize the harshly addictive quality of nicotine until they try to quit for the first time. Nicotine withdrawal causes a broad range of symptoms in varying levels of severity, and prove very difficult for many people to overcome. Addiction to nicotine is particularly hard to break for many because of the psychological dependence that is acquired. With nicotine, use is very frequent throughout the day, and is usually done publicly. This means that instead of hiding cigarette use like people hide most illicit drug use, it is deeply ingrained in their everyday life. Physical withdrawal is over relatively quickly, but the psychological dependence on it lasts much longer. Here, symptoms are divided by the physical - such as actual physical pain that manifests, and by psychological - like mood disturbances.
Physical Nicotine Withdrawal Symptoms
Not everyone experiences withdrawal in the same way, but some symptoms are more common than others. As nicotine gradually leaves the body, many physical changes begin.
Unpleasant as they are, most are due to the body simply normalizing and beginning to heal without nicotine disturbing the natural order of things. People who have smoked longer or those who take in more nicotine through heavy cigarette or tobacco use tend to experience these symptoms more acutely.
- Headache - The most commonly used explanation for the severe headaches that accompany nicotine withdrawal is that they are stress-based. The tension from struggling with withdrawal can trigger headaches and even migraines. Other possible explanations lean towards the regulatory processes that begin once nicotine is absent, including leveling of brain chemicals, increase of oxygen in the blood supply, decrease in heart rate and blood pressure, and blood sugar changes.
- Dizziness - Feeling lightheaded, dizzy, and even confused concerns many people as they face the first few days without smoking. Carbon monoxide levels in the blood decrease, and oxygen increases. It is believed that this is one of the culprits. Blood pressure and heart rate begin to drop, which can also cause these types of symptoms.
- Fatigue - Nicotine is a stimulant. With each dose delivered to the brain, adrenaline is released. Over time, the brain becomes accustomed to working with the aid of this powerful cocktail. When the adrenaline flow lowers, functioning can feel sluggish without that boost.
- Hunger - Because of the stimulant properties inherent in nicotine, a certain level of appetite suppression becomes the norm in a smoker. Once operating at a normal level, the appetite jumps again, causing hunger pangs.
- Cough - Smoking not only adds irritants to the lungs, it also causes lung function to decline. Lungs are self-cleaning, ridding themselves of mucous, irritants, and infection when functioning normally. Smoking has depressed this function, and when the lungs begin to recover, it isn’t uncommon for bouts of coughing to start.
Mental/Psychological Withdrawal Symptoms
Although the physical symptoms accompanying withdrawal are unpleasant and painful, they tend to be relatively short lived and mild compared to many of the symptoms that stem from the psychology of addiction. Some are simply habitual, while others are caused by the root of the problem, the actual addiction to nicotine. Addiction is characterized by the attachment to a substance that the brain forms. It is what causes the seeking behavior found in most addictions - an overwhelming drive to capture the pleasurable sensations by obtaining and using again.
- Cravings - This is quite often the most difficult symptom to overcome. The brain has become accustomed to the spikes of dopamine and adrenaline that nicotine use provides. When that is taken away, the reward system in the brain can override nearly every other thought with the demand to be satisfied again. Cravings are not as simple as wanting another cigarette, the brain is sending frantic signals that the cigarette is needed, in the same way that it needs food or even air.
- Mood Swings - Anxiety, panic, depression, irritability, anger, and frustration are just a few of the often wildly swinging emotions a quitter may experience. Fighting the urge to smoke and saying no to the demands of the addicted brain are truly emotionally taxing. As with any other stressful situations, a person can become easily emotional because of the strain and exhaustion that it causes. The cravings themselves often leave a person edgy and anxious as the addiction is telling the brain that it is being deprived of something that it requires in order to function.
- Confusion/Inattentiveness - Without the habit to fall back on, quitters can often feel lost within their own lives. Smoking has become a part of their own personality, schedule, and life. Many smokers turn to the pack to help them deal with stress and boredom, and the loss of this coping mechanism can leave them somewhat adrift. The routine of smoking often dictates their entire day, and fills a lot of their time. Quitting smoking leaves an emotional void, and it is difficult to occupy the time previously spent smoking.
Nothing Lasts Forever
Nicotine withdrawal is not a permanent fixture. During the early withdrawal stages, it can be hard to remember that there was a reason to quit in the first place. The physical pains and emotional ups and downs, the cravings and the difficulty of it all are part and parcel of the healing process. Pain in this instance does not mean that there is something wrong with the body, but that it is actually healing itself from the damage that nicotine has caused.
Resources, Information, and Other Symptoms of Nicotine Withdrawal