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Managing your cravings

Nicotine withdrawal

Cigarettes contain nicotine, which is a highly addictive. When you stop smoking‚ your body has to get used to not having nicotine and you may experience temporary withdrawal symptoms. These are uncomfortable but it is important for you to understand that what you are going through is actually a positive thing. These symptoms don't last for long and that your body is getting better.

Help and advice

In addition to nicotine cravings, reminders in your day-to-day activities about when you used to smoke may trigger you to smoke. Triggers are the moods, feelings, places, or things you do in your daily life that result in your desire to smoke.

Some common triggers may include:

  • Being around smokers
  • Starting the day
  • Feeling stressed
  • Being in a car
  • Drinking coffee or tea
  • Enjoying a meal
  • Drinking an alcoholic beverage
  • Feeling bored
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The urge to smoke will come and go. Cravings usually last only a very brief period of time. Cravings usually begin within an hour or two after you have your last cigarette, peak for several days, and may last several weeks. As the days pass, the cravings will get farther apart. Occasional mild cravings may last for six months.

Some common tips that can help you deal with your cravings are:

  • Pick a date – choose a date to stop smoking and promise yourself you will not have a single puff from this day on.
  • Remind yourself that cravings will pass.
  • Avoid situations and activities that you used to associate with smoking.
  • Try distractions – think about what you can do to take your mind off cigarettes. Some people find the following suggestions useful. What would work for you?
  • Go for a walk.
  • Have a (healthy) snack: As a substitute for smoking, try chewing on carrots, pickles, apples, celery, sugarless gum or hard sweets. Keeping your mouth busy may stop the psychological need to smoke.
  • Have a (non-alcoholic) drink. Slowly sipping on a glass of cold water helps. 
  • Go for a walk in the park.
  • Have a bath.
  • Try this exercise: Take a deep breath through your nose and blow out slowly through your mouth. Repeat 10 times.
  • Most importantly: Adequately use the recommended nicotine replacement products.

Most people find it best to get rid of their cigarettes and remove all smoking-related things from the house. But some people, however, may not find this useful and prefer to keep hold of the cigarettes. They keep them in places that out of reach. Suggestions made by quitters are in the shed, in the loft, in a bag/box in the spare room.

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After you quit smoking, you may feel tense and cranky, and you may want to give up on tasks more quickly than usual. You may get into more arguments as a result of lack of tolerance. These negative feelings peak in the 1st week of quitting and may last up to two to four weeks.

  • Remind yourself that these feelings are temporary.
  • Go for a walk to relax you.
  • Reduce caffeine intake.
  • Try meditation or other relaxation techniques – getting a massage, soaking in a hot bath or deep breathing work well for some.
  • Set aside some quiet time every morning and evening – a time when you can be alone in a quiet environment.
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It is normal to feel sad for a period of time after you first quit smoking. Some experience mild depression that occurs usually on the first day and tends to continue for the first couple of weeks. This feeling can take up to four weeks to subside.

Studies have found that people with a history of severe depression can develop a new severe episode of depression after quitting smoking. However, in those with no history of depression, incidence depression is mild and quite rare. Feeling depressed can lead to strong urges to smoke. 

  • Talk to a friend 
  • Plan an outing with family and friends.
  • Identify your specific feelings at the time that you seem depressed. Are you actually feeling tired, lonely, bored, or hungry? Focus on and address these specific needs.
  • Engage into a physical activity. This will help to improve your mood and lift your depression.
  • Breathe deeply.
  • Make a list of things that are upsetting to you and write down solutions for them.
  • If depression continues for more than one month, see your doctor.
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It’s an unfortunate fact that when smokers kick the habit, they often gain weight – a side effect that many smokers use as a reason for not quitting. Gaining weight is common after quitting. 

Studies have shown that nicotine binds to receptors on appetite-regulating neurons, which aren’t involved in addiction. These neurons, located in the hypothalamus, send the “I’m full” message after a meal, helping to regulate how much you eat. This helps explain why smokers aren’t as hungry when they smoke, and why they tend to stay thinner on the habit. Hence when they quit, smokers tend to eat more. 

Although most smokers gain fewer than 10 pounds after they quit smoking, the weight gain can be upsetting for some. However, the health benefits of quitting far outweigh the health risks of the extra weight gain.

  • Because some people who quit smoking increase their food intake, regular physical activity and healthy food choices can help you maintain a healthy weight.
  • If weight gain is a problem, you can talk to your stop smoking advisor about support to maintain healthy weight.
  • Studies also show that recommended use of nicotine replacement products can help counter weight gain. 
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Watching people smoke, triggers an urge to smoke. Be prepared for such situations. Think about why these situations trigger the urge? Does being around other smokers make you happy? Or, is there something special about being around the people you usually smoked with? Also, do you find it tempting to join others for routine smoke breaks?

  • Limit your contact with smokers, especially in the early weeks of quitting.
  • Do not buy, carry, light, or hold cigarettes for others.
  • If you are in a group and people around you wish to smoke, excuse yourself. It is best that you don’t return until they have finished.
  • Refrain people from smoking in your house. 
  • Request your friends/relatives, to help you stay quit by not smoking around you.
  • Focus on what you’ve achieved or will achieve by quitting smoking.
  • Above all…think about your reasons to quit.
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Many people smoke right after they wake up. Usually between 5-30 minutes of waking up. Nicotine levels in smokers drop overnight after six to eight hours of sleep, and results in need for a boost of nicotine to start the day. Once quit, it is important recognise the need to overcome the physical need and changing the routine of smoking first thing in the morning. 

  • Changing the wake-up routine helps to divert attention from smoking.
  • Keep cigarettes out of your reach. Make sure they are not easily available for you.
  • Before going to bed, make a list of things you need to avoid in the morning that trigger your urge to smoke.
  • Try deep breathing exercises to relax the urge.
  • Drinking one or more glasses of water also helps in reducing cravings to smoke.
  • Plan a morning activity (e.g. going for a walk, play a sport) that will keep you busy for an hour or more.  This will keep your mind and body busy and distract you from the thoughts of smoking.
  • Remember cravings to smoke last for an average of 3-10 minutes.
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One of the most common reasons reported by smokers to smoke is stress. Nicotine from cigarettes can relieve some of your stress, but relying on nicotine to deal with stress results in increased smoking related harm in stressful conditions. Remember, smoking exposes your body to 4,000 or more chemicals that can cause severe illnesses. Nicotine is one of the chemicals that may be less harmful than others but keeps you strongly addicted to the cigarette. Once you stop smoking, you become more aware of stress and longer you go without smoking, you get better at handling stress. You can also try some stress reduction and relaxation techniques to help you overcome stress. 

  • Identify the known causes of stress in your life.
  • Think about what happens when you are stressed (headaches, nervousness, trouble sleeping or any other symptoms that you might experience).
  • Be aware of your high-risk trigger situations and think about ways you plan to handle them.
  • Set aside some time to get away from your usual environment.
  • Try some relaxation techniques, such yoga or one that works best for you.
  • You may find reading a book or going for walk helpful in handling stress.
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It is common for smokers to become habitual to smoking while driving, either to relax in a traffic jam or to stay alert on a long drive. Like many smokers, you may smoke when driving to and from work to relieve stress, stay alert, relax, or just pass the time. There is some evidence that intake of nicotine can make you feel more awake and alert, but smoking while driving can be distracting and dependency on nicotine to stay alert can result in increased aggression and irritability in absence of nicotine.  

  • Swap your habits. Keep healthy snacks in your car and try eating them instead. 
  • Take an alternate route to work or try carpooling.
  • Turn on your favorite music and sing along.
  • Clean your car and make sure to use deodorizers to reduce the tobacco smell.
  • Remove the ashtray, lighter, and cigarettes from your car.

Tell yourself: 

  • “This urge will only last for few minutes.”
  • “My car smells clean and fresh!”
  • “I’m a better driver now that I’m not distracting myself with smoking while driving.”
  • “Yes, I’m not enjoying this car journey, but it won’t last forever!”

When you are driving or riding with other people:

  • Ask passengers not to smoke in your car.
  • If you’re not driving, find something to do with your hands.

The desire to smoke is stronger and more frequent on longer trips.

  • Take a stretch break.
  • Stop for refreshments.
  • Have regular water intake.
  • Take fresh fruit.
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You may be used to smoking when drinking coffee or tea. When you give up smoking, you get strong urges to smoke while drinking coffee or tea. This does not mean you have to give up coffee or tea to quit smoking, but you should expect that your coffee or tea will not taste the same without a cigarette.

  • If you are having coffee or tea with other smokers, tell them you have quit or trying to quit; to ensure they are not offering you a cigarette.
  • Try switching to decaffeinated coffee or tea for a while, particularly if quitting has made you irritable or nervous.
  • Keep your hands busy by eating some healthy snacks with your drinks.
  • Try drinking your coffee or tea more quickly than usual.
  • Change rooms and locations for having your drinks.
  • Focus on what you’ve gained or will gain from quitting smoking.
  • Between drinks, take deep breaths to inhale the aroma of drinks to keep you distracted.
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Your urges to smoke may be stronger with certain foods (spicy or sweet) and also at different meal times. Your desire to smoke after meals may also depend on whether you are alone, with other smokers, or with nonsmokers.

  • Remember: your appetite increases and food tastes better after you quit smoking.
  • Keep track if the types of foods that increase your urge to smoke – avoid or reduce their intake.
  • Talk to a friend or go for a walk after your meals.
  • Brush your teeth or use mouthwash after meals.
  • Wash the dishes by hand after eating – you can’t smoke with wet hands.
  • Drink water after meals.
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You may be used to smoking when drinking and may associate good feelings with drinking alcoholic beverages. So when you quit smoking, you may feel a strong urge to smoke when you drink alcohol. When you try to quit smoking, drinking alcohol may make it even tougher to cope. 

  • Switch to non-alcoholic drinks.
  • Try different brand or type of alcoholic drink that does not remind you of smoking.
  • Avoid drinking alone. Drink with non-smoking friends/relatives.
  • Avoid drinking at places that you usually associated with smoking.
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  • Plan more activities.
  • List things you can do in your free time.
  • Distract yourself with a book, puzzle or a game when waiting for something or someone.
  • Play games on your phone keep your hands busy. 
  • Listen to music.
  • Move around, go outdoors but avoid places you associate with smoking.
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Knowing your triggers helps you stay in control because you can choose to avoid them or keep your mind distracted and busy when you cannot avoid them.

Last updated: 30 August 2017 | Last reviewed: 30 August 2017