How do I cope with nicotine withdrawal?

Withdrawal from nicotine has 2 parts -- the physical and the mental. The physical symptoms, while annoying, are not life-threatening. Nicotine replacement and other medicines can help reduce many of these physical symptoms. Most smokers find that the bigger challenge is the mental part of quitting.

If you have been smoking for any length of time, smoking has become linked with nearly everything you do -- waking up in the morning, eating, reading, watching TV, and drinking coffee, for example. It will take time to "un-link" smoking from these activities. This is why, even if you are using a nicotine replacement, you may still have strong urges to smoke. One way to overcome these urges or cravings is to notice and identify rationalizations as they come up. A rationalization is a mistaken thought that seems to make sense to you at the time, but the thought is not based on reality. If you choose to believe in such a thought, it can serve as a way to justify smoking. If you have tried to quit before, you will probably recognize many of these common rationalizations:

  • I'll just have one to get through this rough spot.
  • Today is not a good day. I'll quit tomorrow.  
  • It's my only vice.
  • How bad is smoking, really? Uncle Harry smoked all his life and he lived to be over 90.
  • Air pollution is probably just as bad.
  • You've got to die of something.
  • Life is no fun without smoking.

You probably can add more to the list. As you go through the first few days without smoking, write down any rationalizations as they come up and recognize them for what they are: messages that can trick you into going back to smoking. Look out for them, because they always show up when you're trying to quit. After you write down the idea, let it go from your mind. Be ready with a distraction, a plan of action, and other ways to re-direct your thoughts to something else.

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Since nicotine is highly addictive, withdrawal causes both physical and psychological symptoms that can begin as soon as two to three hours after your last cigarette. But nicotine cravings become less intense over time and, for most people, eventually go away. You can deal with nicotine cravings by avoiding your triggers -- the situations that make you want to smoke. To quit smoking successfully, you need to address both physical and psychological aspects of cravings. Find other ways to unwind, such as yoga or meditation, instead of grabbing a smoke.

You can also keep your mouth and hands busy by chewing gum, eating carrot sticks or keeping a cinnamon stick or flavored toothpick in your mouth. If none of these tricks work for you, your doctor can recommend prescription medications or a nicotine replacement product (gum, patch, nasal spray or lozenges) to take the edge off your cravings.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.