Trying to quit smoking? Here are tips to avoid a relapse when stressed

Science and Health

Any former smoker knows that the urge to smoke can resurface even months or years after quitting. Strong emotions, particularly stress and anxiety, can often trigger a relapse. Even positive things can increase the longing for a cigarette.

Stressful times can cause anxiety, and people consequently seek ways to relax and cope. For many ex-smokers, cigarettes were seen as soothing and calming during their smoking days, so it is natural that they end up thinking of them in stressful moments. 

Smoking is often viewed as a form of self-medication for stress and depression, with nicotine in cigarette smoke triggering the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with positive emotions. However, studies indicate that avoiding smoking can reduce anxiety and improve mood in the long run. Physiologically, smoking activates the sympathetic nervous system, leading to increased blood pressure and heart rate and ultimately intensifying stress levels. 

Many relapsed quitters recall their first cigarette after a long period of abstaining from it. Although they found it distasteful and nauseating, it paved the way for more cigarettes until they eventually resumed smoking. The reason for this is the dormant nicotine receptors in the human brain.

A man smoking a cigarette in the Golan Heights, 2016 (credit: AP)

When someone begins smoking, these receptors become “active” and “demand” a constant supply of nicotine. When you stop smoking, the body undergoes nicotine withdrawal, which may manifest as strong cravings, fatigue, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and more. Eventually, these symptoms subside, and the receptors return to a dormant state.

It is crucial to remember that the receptors do not disappear entirely. Completely stopping smoking is the only way to ensure they remain inactive. 

Smoking addiction also involves a psychological and behavioral aspect that is highly significant. Cigarettes become intertwined with emotions, daily routines, and various situations. Adjusting to life without cigarettes takes time and effort. It is therefore natural for different events to trigger thoughts of cigarettes as a response to something missing in the moment.


7 tips that will help you not to go back to smoking:

  1. Remind yourself of the reasons why you quit smoking and write them down. Keep the note somewhere visible, such as on the fridge or in your wallet. Refer to it during challenging moments to boost motivation.
  2. Learn to recognize situations that trigger the desire to smoke and try to avoid them as much as possible. Identify the emotions you feel in those situations to understand what need the cigarette fulfilled. Find healthy alternatives to fulfill that need, such as getting sufficient rest, hydrating, eating nutritious food, practicing deep breathing, meditating, exercising, or using a cinnamon stick.
  3. Use active distraction when the urge to smoke arises. Wait and let the craving pass, as it typically lasts only a few minutes. Engage in activities that prevent smoking, such as crafting, cooking, reading, watching a movie, cleaning, listening to music, talking on the phone, or playing with children or grandchildren.
  4. Incorporate exercise into your routine. Regular physical activity has been proven to help manage stress and increase the success rate of quitting smoking. Choose activities you enjoy, such as walking, swimming, cycling, or dancing.
  5. Practice deep breathing. Taking deep breaths can be surprisingly effective in relieving stress. When the urge to smoke emerges, take deep breaths and imagine clean air filling your lungs. Hold the breath for a few seconds before exhaling. Repeat this exercise 5-10 times. Explore other relaxation methods like mindfulness, yoga, or pilates.
  6. Your own voice is persuasive. Speak out loud and affirm “I don’t want to smoke.” Repeat this phrase whenever the craving arises. Create other empowering affirmations that resonate with you, such as “I am strong,” “I won’t give up,” or “I won’t return to smoking.”
  7. Seek support from family, friends, coworkers, and professionals. Join a quit smoking program, whether it’s a group workshop or a helpline. Consult your doctor for additional guidance.

I slipped up and smoked a cigarette, what can I do?

Relapses are common during the journey to quit smoking, even after a prolonged period of abstaining. Practice self-forgiveness during challenging times.

Remember that a stumble on the way does not undo all the progress made. The key is to not give up and avoid smoking again. Learn from the experience to prevent future relapses. Consider enrolling in a program for professional support, which increases your chances of success.