Don Draper, the hero of AMC's "Mad Men," has a way of making people uncomfortable -- especially when he lights up a Lucky Strike. He just makes it look too good. Current and ex-smokers everywhere sigh with longing as they watch the generous plumes of tobacco smoke slowly drift upwards while he casually inhales at his desk, near his kids or even at the doctor's office. Forget Joe Camel -- it's movie stars and sex symbols who really create a need to fumble out the pack and frantically snap open a lighter.
Whether you've gone cold turkey or you're trying to severely limit your nicotine intake, there will be a myriad of other triggers just waiting for you. Like the seven deadly sins of the medieval morality plays, these triggers can tempt the most well-meaning quitter into lighting up and breathing out that smoky cloud of relief. Cigarettes are one of the remaining poisons that are still socially acceptable to enjoy in public. However, understand that the road is going to be littered with distractions and triggers. Knowing what they are for you is a great way to start the process of successfully managing your smoking habit or even quitting entirely. Remember that triggers are intensely personal and often tied to specific routines and habits, so everyone is different. Yet, there are some common triggers that seem to get to every former smoker, sooner or later.
The great modern epidemic seems to be stress. While we're moving faster and using more technology than ever before, we're also more anxious than ever before -- 1 in 5 Americans suffers from depression or anxiety [source: CDC]. Many smokers say they often smoke when stressed, making any stressful day or situation a perfect trigger for someone who is trying to avoid lighting up, but particularly for women, according to research [source: Neighmond].
Actually, though, this is counterintuitive. Most studies say that smoking isphysically stressful. Instead of relieving stress, the rush of nicotine (not to mention the deprivation of oxygen and chemical cocktail whipping through your bloodstream) will increase your heart rate and make the stress symptoms worse [source: New York Times]. While a quick cigarette might take the edge off whatever withdrawal symptoms the smoker is feeling, it will not bring satisfactory relief in the long run. You might not be able to avoid all stress, but it's healthier to deal with it in a positive way. Better ways to relieve stress include:
- Walking, running or jogging
- Playing a video game for 5 minutes
- Reading a chapter in a good book
- Taking deep breaths
- Talking to a friend or loved one
On the opposite emotional spectrum from stress is boredom. David Sedaris has a hilarious short essay about how smoking helped him with his OCD and tics in college because it gave him something else to do [source: A Plague of Tics]. Sedaris is not alone -- there is a startling correlation between many mental disorders and smoking, particularly schizophrenia, due to a lack of dopamine in the brain that can make nicotine intake a more powerful or enjoyable experience [source: Schizophrenia.com]. A lack of your brain's "feel good" chemicals is also often lacking when you feel bored or run-down.
Many smokers talk about how it's great having something to do with their hands. There are lighters to fiddle with, ashtrays to move around, packs of smokes to pack, unwrap and store. The cigarette itself allows the hand and mouth to be physically active even if the mind is at rest. Some people bite their nails or twirl their hair when bored: smokers smoke. Being bored in this way is a tough trigger to tackle because boredom, like stress, is not always avoidable.
It used to be a classic moment in film: After a passionate encounter, the hero and heroine flop back and light up in pleased exhaustion. Why the automatic connection between romance and smoking? Actually, any activity that gets the adrenaline pumping can trigger the desire for a cigarette, even something as seemingly smoke-free as mountain climbing or a marathon.
When your adrenaline is pumping, the chemical norepinephrine is working in your bloodstream. This chemical is related to dopamine and shares the characteristics that give you that rush or stimulate you. Since dopamine is released more rapidly when you smoke, you can trick yourself into enjoying that natural adrenaline high a little longer with a cigarette, explaining why victory cigarettes seem like a good idea [source: Rutgers]. Stimulation might surprise the former smoker, triggering a craving out of the blue. Being aware of the connection can help a quitter decide to have another reward ready ahead of time -- a cocktail with friends, a long hot bath, a favorite meal. Having something to look forward to instead of the smoke will help in curtailing the instant desire for one when that dopamine craving strikes.
To quote Woody Allen: "Remember, if you smoke after sex, you're doing it too fast."
Eating is the one thing on this list that absolutely can't be avoided. After a satisfying meal, the urge to smoke can be strong. This may be tied to dopamine, like stimulation, since eating a great meal can certainly increase your brain's natural happy drugs. It might also be a way to relax after the relatively taxing activity of eating (sometimes too fast) or the addition of wine with a meal. Most likely, though, it's habitual. Having a smoke after dinner was a socially reinforced habit for many years. Even in modern times, most smokers will wait until the food is cleared before lighting up, just out of politeness, not wanting to mar the smell or taste of the food until everyone is finished. So the enforced wait of dinner only tends to add to a cigarette's appeal, making this time another trigger to be on the lookout for.
6: Social Situations
Any D.A.R.E. officer worth his salt loves to emphasize the dangers of peer pressure. As long as there have been drug-prevention programs, there has been an increased awareness of how susceptible we all are to social influences. This can be particularly true of smoking. Our friends, colleagues and family members are who we pick up social cues from, sometimes learning habits and behaviors very early on. Besides that, social occasions can be stressful or celebratory -- both triggers for smoking.
Even if no one else in the group is smoking, many folks are conditioned to think of a social space as a spot to relax and enjoy a cigarette or cigar.
Volkswagen's popular ad in the 1990s introduced non-German speakers to the term Fahrvergnügen -- the pleasure of driving. For many smokers, that pleasure is incomplete without a cigarette or two … or more. Driving can be stressful and boring -- both triggers by themselves. It can also be social, another trigger. If you know that your car is a favorite smoke spot, the first thing to do is clean the interior thoroughly. You'll be much less likely to smoke in a car that isn't triggering your nose as soon as you sit down. Besides vacuuming and dusting, though, be aware that for the smell to really dissipate, you'll need to get nitty-gritty with detailing. If you can afford to, you can have it professionally done.
4: Waking Up
Springing out of bed, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, is easier if you're a morning person. For smokers, it can also be easier to face the day after a nice long drag on a cigarette. Technically, this is one of the easier triggers to explain: You haven't had a cigarette in 8 hours, so your body is jonesing for one from the second you glare at the alarm clock.
It's also habitual, and this is a habit that can keep smokers smoking for years. Unfortunately, smoking first thing is now linked to higher risks of lung cancer and higher dependency, so it should be the first habit you change [source: BBC].
Create a new morning routine for yourself. Here are some things you should do before lighting up:
- Brush your teeth: The minty toothpaste will act as a stimulant and make your mouth too fresh for a cigarette.
- Shower: Even if you don't usually shower first thing, the shock of water and activity required will get you thinking about your day (and hopefully distracting you from thinking about a smoke).
- Eat Breakfast: The chemical cotinine is reduced by the time you eat breakfast, and this chemical is linked to the higher risk of lung cancer.
3: Seeing Smoke
Humans are visual creatures by nature. If we weren't, the advertising business wouldn't have lasted very long. When prescription drugs started being advertised on television in 1997, sales of brand-name drugs skyrocketed. Similarly, when cigarette ads disappeared, sales declined. One reason for this is the visual stimulation of seeing someone smoke [source: Science News]. For someone who is cutting back or kicking the habit entirely, the visual image of smoke is a powerful trigger. It looks good in the way a glass of water looks good to a thirsty person. It also doesn't help that older movies featured mostly filterless cigarettes -- the plume of smoke that is exhaled is positively luxuriant compared to filtered smokes. Smoking can look sexy, masculine, or even nostalgic. But mostly, to a smoker, it looks tempting, still a prime influence in getting people to smoke [source: National Cancer Institute]. Fifty-four percent of movies released in 2009 still featured smokers [source: Newsweek]. Even if the smoker is a villain (Cruella DaVille), the act of smoking can still trigger longing in anyone who has known and enjoyed the sensation of smoking.
2: Smelling Smoke
Our sense of smell is closely tied to memory, and so it's only natural that smelling someone smoking will trigger a yearning in a former smoker [source: New York Times]. Smelling fresh smoke will evoke memories of cigarettes past, moments enjoyed. Watching someone smoke combines the triggers of seeing and smelling it, which can be nearly unbearable for some quitters. That's why people who successfully quit often ask for smokers among their friends and family to avoid smoking around them.
To a nonsmoker or someone who dislikes smoking, the smell is acrid. Smelling smoke in a closed space, on clothing, in a car, even on pets can induce strong negative reactions. But for a former smoker, often the scent has the opposite effect. The smell can be almost comforting and certainly suggestive. It is also reminiscent of how your own clothes, hair, car and the like, used to smell. Sometimes this works as a positive reinforcement. If a former smoker comes to dislike the stale odor, then catching a whiff will just remind them that they're glad they quit.
1: Just Because
Sometimes it's just nice to have a cigarette. Of course, it's chemically addicting, but it's also habitually addicting. For instance, some smoke only when they have a cocktail or with coffee (two beverages tightly associated with smoking). There are even medications that increase the desire to smoke, which is an excellent reason to consult a doctor before starting a quitting campaign.
It doesn't matter what your particular triggers are. You might have one or you might have a hundred. Everyone is different in their chemical makeup and mental ability to cope with withdrawal and addiction. The important thing is to stay positive and try your hardest every day.
Some general tips for dealing with triggers whenever they appear:
- Talk to your doctor: Your doctor should be the first person you talk to about trying to quit smoking. He or she will know your personal medical history and be able to help you.
- Tell everyone else: By enlisting the support of your peers and loved ones, you will have an immediate group of people willing to help you when triggers arise.
- Find a new hobby: This is especially for anyone who loves the activity associated with smoking. Find something else to do with your hands, like reading, knitting or playing video games. Make sure your new hobby keeps you out of places you associate with smoking (like bars and bowling alleys).
- Exercise, eat right, sleep: A good night's sleep, plenty of water and nutritious meals will help you feel better, creating a link in your mind between not smoking and feeling great.
Lots More Information
- 10 Reasons People Start Smoking
- 10 Best Things About Quitting Smoking
- 9 Tools to Help You Successfully Quit Smoking
- American Cancer Society. "Guide to Quitting Smoking." (May 11, 2011) http://www.cancer.org/Healthy/StayAwayfromTobacco/GuidetoQuittingSmoking/guide-to-quitting-smoking-benefits
- American Cancer Society. "Questions about Smoking, Tobacco and Health." (May 11, 2011) http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/CancerCauses/TobaccoCancer/QuestionsaboutSmokingTobaccoandHealth/questions-about-smoking-tobacco-and-health-toc
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- Neighmond, Patti. NPR. "Stress, Anxiety May Keep Women Smoking." (May 10, 2011) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=106461484
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