Kicking the habit and ending the fear
By Carol McMahon, MS
Late night convenience store employees all have anecdotes about smokers who have run out of cigarettes and who appear, in a panic, in their pajamas. It’s not funny. It’s a horror story for people living with the addiction. And it’s a very serious health risk for loved ones living with smokers.
Smoking creates an environment of fear among those addicted to cigarettes. They fear the likely potential that they will die years before their time because of smoking. They fear the judgment and shame that smoking inspires from others. But above all is an even more insidious fear: how they will cope with life without cigarettes.
For smokers, addiction equals a loss of control that can override even their worst nightmares about sickness and death. So powerful is nicotine addiction that they believe life would be unmanageable without smoking. They bargain with every cigarette, thinking that if they can just get through this latest crisis, transition or problem, they will finally quit. But life is filled with tests, so the bargaining and fear continue.
I’ve been a smoking cessation counselor for many years, beginning when we all knew conclusively that smoking was bad for our health, but before we thoroughly understood the science behind smoking cessation. Back then, helping people give up cigarettes was done by volunteers. Today, smoking cessation programs are staffed with well-trained counselors armed with best practices and techniques that have evolved over decades of study and research.
We understand the challenge of reversing years of ingrained behavioral patterns that revolve around cigarettes. And most importantly, we know a great deal more about nicotine replacement and how effectively these therapies can be in helping even the most long-term smokers if they are determined to quit.
Despite the hold that nicotine can have on people, smokers all have something in their lives that they value more than cigarettes. Most frequently, it’s children or grandchildren. Keeping a loved ones’ photo in a prominent place – even in a pack of cigarettes – can help stay focused on what matters most.
It’s also important to understand that smokers only have to quit one day at a time. Every smoker ends their relationship with cigarettes differently, but none of them will be successful without a plan. For 20 to 25 times a day, year after year, they used to reach for a cigarette, creating rituals around smoking that are now deeply ingrained behaviors. What will they do instead? Everyone needs a plan in place to cope with such significant change. Exercise helps. So does meditation, lollipops and any number of other activities and props. The point is, successfully quitting requires time and preparation to create new ways to cope without cigarettes.
In addition, long and short-term nicotine replacement therapies such as patches, lozenges and gum can be very effective as part of an overall strategy. Depending on your insurance plan, nicotine replacement therapy is free or very low cost.
There are other powerful incentives that help people finally overcome their addiction to nicotine. The health benefits are remarkable, and start to kick in very soon after the last cigarette. Within 20 minutes, the heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature return to normal. Within 12 hours, the carbon monoxide level in the blood reduces dramatically, and the oxygen level rises to normal. Quitting cigarettes after a pack-a-day habit can save over $3,000 a year.
Despite all we know, quitting smoking can still be the hardest thing some people will ever do. But there is a lot of help out there from experienced counselors who are not only rooting for you to succeed, but are armed with decades of research and best-practice strategies that will significantly help the process. Quitting cigarettes finally ends the fear surrounding the health risks to your body and those you love. It also welcomes in a whole new feeling of hope for a healthier future.
Carol McMahon, MS, is a Master Certified Tobacco Treatment Specialist at Berkshire Medical Center.