How to overcome the top 6 obstacles to quitting smoking 

Whether it’s your first time trying to quit or your 10th, these strategies can help you find success and make it your last.

You’ve decided to quit smoking. That’s great! Unfortunately, deciding to quit and staying smoke-free are two different things. More than half of adult cigarette smokers tried quitting smoking in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But less than 10% succeeded. 

If you’ve tried to kick the habit with no luck, don’t let that stop you from another attempt. The more times you try, the more likely you’ll eventually do it, says Scott Sherman, MD. Dr. Sherman is an internal medicine physician and smoking-cessation specialist at NYU Langone Health in New York City. To help you make this attempt the one that sticks, here are ways to blast through some common barriers to success.

Quit-smoking obstacle: Urges and cravings

These may be especially pronounced during the first couple of weeks, says Dr. Sherman. So before your “quit day,” make a list of what triggers your desire to smoke, Dr. Sherman suggests. Then plan on how to deal with each of them. 

“If you associate your usual cup of coffee after dinner with a cigarette, then make a change. Like switching to tea or getting up from the table immediately after you eat to go on a short walk,” Dr. Sherman says. 

Using smartphone quit apps is another important strategy, says Jud Brewer, MD, PhD. Dr. Brewer is an associate professor in behavioral and social sciences and psychiatry at the Schools of Public Health and Medicine at Brown University. You can use apps to track cravings and understand and change your smoking patterns. 

Look for apps that encourage you to accept smoking triggers, rather than just avoiding them. Apps that focus on acceptance have been shown to be almost 50% more effective at helping you stay off cigarettes than those that teach avoidance. Two to try: iCanQuit and QuitGuide. Both apps also track how much money you save by not buying cigarettes, which can be a great motivator.

Do you have the digital health management app Wellframe? If so, you have access to a free smoking-cessation program through your health plan. Many health plans offer Wellframe free to members. 

Quit-smoking obstacle: Mood swings

Smokers are already more likely to have depression than nonsmokers. But symptoms can get worse in the first 2 weeks after you stop smoking due to nicotine withdrawal. One way to help reduce these effects is to take advantage of smoking-cessation therapies that help ease withdrawal, says Dr. Sherman. These include: 

  • Varenicline (Chantix®). This prescription medication works on the brain to help reduce nicotine withdrawal symptoms and cigarette cravings.
  • Bupropion (Zyban®). It’s an antidepressant that can be used to help with quitting smoking.
  • Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). This comes in 5 forms: patch, gum, nasal spray, inhaler, and lozenges. They help reduce the severity of your withdrawal symptoms. 

Ask your primary care doctor about using 1 or more of these therapies. A study in the Journal of Smoking Cessation found that varenicline combined with the patch and lozenge can work well to reduce withdrawal symptoms. But it came with a high risk of side effects, including insomnia, strange dreams, and nausea. Your doctor can talk with you about these and other side effects.  

Quit-smoking obstacle: Weight gain

Many people gain weight after they quit smoking. It’s usually around 5 to 10 pounds. One reason is that nicotine speeds up your metabolism so you burn up to 15% more calories. An increase in appetite is also a common withdrawal symptom. Plus, the act of eating mimics the motion of smoking, which many people miss while trying to quit.  

One technique that may be effective for both quitting smoking and avoiding weight gain is mindfulness, says Dr. Brewer. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the here and now without passing judgment on what’s happening. It can help you accept and manage cravings — for both nicotine and food — in the moment. 

Dr. Brewer published a study on the topic in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. It looked at people who had mindfulness training for smoking cessation. They were about 5 times more likely to stay smoke-free at the end of 17 weeks than those who used a more traditional smoking-cessation program.  

Another study looked at Dr. Brewer’s mindfulness app, Eat Right Now. In it, participants practiced mindfulness techniques for 10 minutes a day. It was shown to reduce craving-related eating by 40%.  

Quit-smoking obstacle: Stress

If you’ve learned to deal with stress by smoking, you may find it hard to stay quit. A high stress level is linked with nearly double the odds that you’ll fail to quit. It’s important to find other healthy ways to handle stress without smoking. These can include:

  • Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing.
  • Visualization exercises. (Picture a place where you feel safe and relaxed, such as the beach or your mom’s kitchen.)
  • Exercise.  
  • Spending time with supportive loved ones. 
  • Finding things to smile and laugh about. 

Quit-smoking obstacle: Social pressure 

“There’s nothing harder on smokers trying to quit than being around others who smoke,” says Dr. Sherman. To make things simpler, Dr. Sherman suggests avoiding other smokers for the first 2 weeks, which tends to be the hardest time. 

You should also avoid other social triggers that may expose you to smoking (think: going to a bar or party). Over time, you’ll likely be able to ease back into these situations. 

It’s also very important that your partner try to quit too, if they smoke. Women who have a nonsmoking partner are twice as likely to successfully quit as those who live with smokers, findings in PLOS One suggest. 

Quit-smoking obstacle: Fear of failure

It’s normal to slip up and smoke when you’re trying to quit. And then do it again. The good news? Once you make it past the first few months, your odds of relapsing drop dramatically — by as much as 87% after 6 months. That’s according to a study in The BMJ. So tell yourself that it’s all part of the process and press on. 

Remember: The more times you try, the more likely you’ll be successful, says Dr. Sherman. “It takes an average 6 to 12 attempts before the average smoker can stay quit,” says Sherman. So think of each stumble as proof that you’re 1 step closer to being a nonsmoker!

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