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How often do smokers relapse when they quit?

Why Do Smokers Relapse?
Giving in to cravings and withdrawal symptoms are often what prompts a relapse.
Giving in to cravings and withdrawal symptoms are often what prompts a relapse.
© Massé

To understand what causes a relapse, you first need to understand the two stages that former smokers go through in the first few weeks after their last cigarette.

The first stage is withdrawal. This is the period when the body is actually adjusting to the lack of the nicotine it has become addicted to. As a person smokes more, the body builds up a tolerance to nicotine, as it would to any other drug. Having nicotine in the system becomes the body's new normal. When the supply of nicotine is abruptly cut off, the body suffers in the short term as it adjusts itself to function without the drug. Cravings during withdrawal are extremely strong -- many smokers describe them as physical sensations.

The symptoms that accompany withdrawal make those cravings harder to resist. The exact symptoms and their severity vary with every smoker, but generally they can include dizziness, nausea, constipation, gas, increased appetite, anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping through the night, problems concentrating, coughing and a sensation of tightness in the chest [source: National Cancer Institute]. Luckily, cravings themselves usually last only a few minutes, and the entire withdrawal process lasts one or two weeks total. Making it through that initial stage can be extremely difficult, but quitting becomes a lot easier afterward.

Once the withdrawal period is over, nicotine cravings become less physical and become more mental. A smoker's body may return to "normal," but his mind is still the mind of a smoker. At this point, cravings usually come from the constant reminders of smoking. These reminders, or triggers, can be people, places or situations that a smoker associates with cigarettes that can cause strong mental urges to light up. Unfortunately for the smoker trying to quit, those triggers can crop up almost anywhere, at any time. Common triggers include seeing an old smoking buddy at work; enjoying happy hour at a bar; drinking alcohol or coffee; talking on the telephone; driving; or having sex. Triggers can be negative events as well, like a busy week at work, a fight with a spouse or partner, or even just being in bad mood. Any situation that used to be a reason to smoke a cigarette becomes a temptation to relapse.

Quitting smoking can seem like a pretty huge obstacle. And it is. But for every temptation, there's a way to fight the urge for a cigarette. Continue to the next page for some strategies to resist cravings.