The other day a friend took out a cigarette and started smoking it in front of me. It was a bit of a surprise, and it made me reflect on how much less I encounter smoking than ever before in my life. Rates of smoking among adults in the U.S. have fallen from 42% in 1965 to 13.7% in 2018. Smoking in kids has fallen from 27.5% in 1991 to 8.8% in 2017. Both trends reflect a decline of about 68%. At the same time, smokers have greatly reduced the number of cigarettes they consume in a day.
This is great news, and I’d like to help the remaining smokers give it up. I used to run a successful program to help people quit, and I’d like to share the approaches that worked well for the participants. Clients would get acupuncture and herbs to help with the cravings; we would do some digging and releasing to clear the underlying psychological patterns associated with smoking; and finally I would tell them this:
“You are not forbidden to smoke. Don’t feed the inner conflict by saying to yourself, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this.’ If there’s a shouldn’t within you, then there’s also “but I am doing it,” and from that, it follows that you’re bad, you’re wrong, you’re breaking the rules, you’re a failure, you deserve to be punished, etc. It perpetuates a whole mess of negative thoughts, guilt, and shame which are arguably as bad for you as the smoking itself.”
If they felt like having a cigarette, I would tell them to do six things.
Number one: Use empowering language. Instead of telling yourself, “I can’t have this cigarette,” which feels like you’re being constrained by an outside force, use verbiage that implies your choice and power in the matter, such as: “I don’t smoke anymore. I just don’t put that stuff in my body. I’m not a smoker anymore. I choose to only breathe clean air now.” And rather than telling other people, “I’m trying to quit,” which gives you an out, tell them, “I quit!” Or, if that feels too big, “I’m in the process of quitting.”
Number two: Take a minute to slow and deepen your breathing. Much of the appeal of smoking is that smokers routinely take time to step outside and do some deep breathing. Aside from the smoke inhalation part, this is a great stress management practice, so we don’t want to take that away.
Draw your inhale the whole way down to your lower belly, imagining you’re filling up the bowl of your pelvis with it. Then make your exhale very long, getting all the air out. Do this several times. (If it’s helpful at first, you can hold your fingers to your lips as if drawing through a cigarette.) If the desire for a cigarette remains, continue on.
Number three: Connect to the want-a-cigarette feeling. How do you know it’s time to smoke? Most of the time you’re barely aware of the feeling; you just respond to it unconsciously and have a smoke. This step is about making conscious the connection between the craving feeling and the act of smoking.
Drop into your body and tune in to what’s coming up. Don’t try to define it; just feel what it feels like. What exactly is the feeling? Where is it concentrated? What can it tell you about yourself?
You may tend to regard it as a yearning, but what’s beneath the yearning? The yearning is a response to something deeper. There’s some form of discomfort there and smoking is the thing you do to get the feeling to go away. But there are other ways to release it. The feeling is just a feeling; it’s not going to harm you, and it doesn’t mean you have to smoke.
There are many approaches to dealing with the feeling. A good place to start is by simply allowing the feeling to be here without resisting it. Can you feel the feeling fully? Can you invite it to be experienced by your whole self? Can you breathe into it? And can you open yourself and allow it to leave?
Just follow the prompts above and see what happens. Don’t judge yourself if the feeling doesn’t go away. If the desire for a cigarette remains, continue on.
Number four: Uncouple the act of smoking from any other activity. We don’t want smoking to be linked to anything else, especially things you do all the time. So, if you tend to have a cigarette while on the phone, a cigarette after sex, a cigarette after eating, or a cigarette while driving, choose another time to smoke. You’re going to keep eating, having sex, and driving, so we want to clear the association with smoking. Before smoking, do everything reasonable to remove yourself from other activities and positive environments.
Number five: Talk to your body. If you still want to smoke, take out a cigarette, become aware of our lungs, your heart, and your whole body. Then ask inwardly, “Do you want this?” or “How do you feel about this?” Then listen and feel for a response. If the desire for a cigarette remains, continue on.
Number six: Give all your attention to the act of smoking. Be alone, tune out everything else, and smoke that cigarette. Be completely present to the act. At whatever point the urge to smoke has dissipated, stop and stub it out. When you’re immersed in it, this point tends to come well before the end of the cigarette. And even if you do smoke the whole thing, it will tend to satisfy you for much longer than if you smoked it mindlessly. While my hope for people is that they’ll quit entirely, cutting down from ten to three is a great and worthwhile accomplishment.
If you’re a smoker I’d love to hear about your experience with these simple steps. And if you know someone else who could benefit from this article, please pass it along.
Dr. Peter Borten