Quitting Smoking: Coping With Cravings and Withdrawal
It's not easy to quit smoking. The nicotine in cigarettes is addicting. Your body craves it because it makes you feel good.
So when you try to stop smoking, you go through nicotine withdrawal. You feel awful, and you may worry about gaining weight. You get cranky and anxious. It can be hard to sleep.
You're not the only one. Most people feel bad when they try to quit. The hardest part is not reaching for a smoke to feel better. Use the tips in this Actionset to help you cope. The information also applies if you use chew or snuff.
- Symptoms of nicotine withdrawal are at their worst during the first couple of days or so after you quit. They may last a few weeks.
- Medicines help ease withdrawal symptoms and craving. This can help you feel better and make it more likely that you won't start smoking again.
- Exercise and healthy eating also may help.
Talk with your doctor
Your doctor can prescribe medicines that can get you through withdrawal. Together, you can plan the best way to use nicotine replacement products or medicine.
If you have questions about this information, print it out and take it with you when you visit your doctor. You may want to mark areas or make notes in the margins where you have questions.
How can you get through it?
Get counseling or other support
Don't try to do it alone. Your doctor can help you learn about medicines or about how to use nicotine replacement therapy. And a support group can keep you on track and motivated. People who use telephone, group, one-on-one, or Internet counseling are more likely to stop smoking. Counselors can help you with practical ideas to avoid common mistakes and help you succeed.
- Call the national quitline at 1-800-QUIT NOW and talk to some experts.
- Ask friends and family for help, especially those who are former smokers.
- Ask friends and family members who are smokers not to smoke around you, and try to avoid situations that remind you of smoking.
- See a counselor, doctor, or nurse who is trained in helping people quit. The more counseling you get, the better your chances of quitting.
- Enroll in an online or in-person stop-smoking class or program.
- Try a free quit-smoking app such as National Cancer Institute's QuitPal. Have friends and family record encouraging video messages that you can play when you are feeling overwhelmed.
- Join a support group of others who are trying to quit.
Many people smoke because nicotine helps them relax. Without the nicotine, they feel uptight and grouchy. But there may be better ways to cope with these feelings, that is, ways that may make dealing with cigarette cravings easier. Try these ideas:
- Take several deep breaths slowly. Hold the last one, then breathe out as slowly as possible. Try to relax all your muscles.
- Try massage, yoga, or the traditional Chinese relaxation exercises tai chi and qi gong.
- Listen to relaxing music. Learn self-hypnosis, meditation, and guided imagery.
- If you can, try to avoid stressful situations when you first stop smoking. If you are like a lot of people who smoke, your main reason for smoking may be that you simply want a break. If this sounds like you, try a non-cigarette break and take a walk or spend time with nonsmokers.
These ideas can help you relax. But it's also good to figure out the cause of your stress. Then, learn how to change the way you react to it.
Be more active
Physical activity may help reduce your nicotine cravings and relieve some withdrawal symptoms. It doesn't have to be intense activity. Mild exercise is fine.footnote 1 Being more active also may help you reduce stress and keep your weight down.
When you have the urge to smoke, do something active instead. Walk around the block. Head to the gym. Do some gardening or housework. Take the dog for a walk. Play with the kids.
Get plenty of rest
If you have trouble sleeping, try these tips:
- Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
- Take a warm bath or a relaxing walk before bed.
- Avoid drinking alcohol late in the evening, because it can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night.
- Don't have coffee, black tea, or other drinks with caffeine in the 8 hours before you go to bed.
- Do not take naps, unless you are sure they don't keep you awake at night.
- If you can't sleep, talk to your doctor about medicines to help you sleep while you are first going through withdrawal.
- Before going to bed, avoid using devices with LED-emitting light, as found in some smartphones and other handheld computers.
- Try meditation or deep breathing before you go to bed.
Eat healthy foods
Quitting smoking increases your appetite. To avoid gaining weight, keep in mind that the secret to weight control is eating healthy food and being more active.
- Don't try to diet. Most people who deprive themselves of food at the same time they are trying to stop smoking have an even harder time of stopping smoking.
- Substitute more fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods for foods that have a lot of sugar or fat.
For more on eating and smoking, see Quitting Smoking: Dealing With Weight Gain.
Reduce demands on your time and energy
Quitting smoking can be harder if you have a lot of work or family demands.
- Try to set your quit date for a time when there are fewer work and family demands.
- Tell your spouse, family, and friends to ask less of you during the first days and weeks that you quit.
- Do something fun with the money you save from not buying cigarettes.
- Be aware that being tired from activity, lack of sleep, or your emotions can make it harder not to smoke.
Use a stop-smoking medicine
Medicines can help you deal with nicotine withdrawal and cigarette cravings. Most medicines also help prevent weight gain. Research shows that they more than double your chances of quitting for good.footnote 2
- Nicotine replacement medicines can help relieve the physical cravings for nicotine. Nicotine patches, gum, lozenges, and inhalers are helpful, especially when you have a strong craving.
- Medicines without nicotine, such as varenicline (Chantix) or bupropion (Zyban), can also help you quit smoking. If you take varenicline, you can stop smoking a little bit at a time, which may increase your chance of quitting.
For more on using medicine, see Quitting Smoking: Should I Use Medicine?
Read how others manage
Many people try to quit smoking many times before they can stop for good.
Research shows that you'll be more successful if you get help. Here's how a few people finally managed to quit.
It took Michael seven tries to quit smoking.
"It's awful. My craving for cigarettes was very, very strong," he says. "You just become so frustrated. You feel all this pent-up energy and don't know how to relieve it.
"And you could just go to the corner store and buy a pack and end the misery. That's what I would end up doing."
He finally managed to quit by using nicotine patches. He's been smoke-free for nearly 4 years.
Eric had his first cigarette when he was 12. By age 23, he was tearing through a pack and a half a day.
He tried quitting "cold turkey." He tried nicotine gum. Neither worked for him. So he tried nicotine patches.
The patches made him feel sick for a few days. The first week without cigarettes felt like torture, because his cravings were so strong. But when he started using gum along with the patch, the cravings became bearable. In 5 weeks, he had managed to stop smoking.
- Taylor AH, et al. (2007). The acute effects of exercise on cigarette cravings, withdrawal symptoms, affect and smoking behaviour: A systematic review. Addiction, 102(4): 534–543.
- Stead LF, et al. (2012). Nicotine replacement therapy for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (11).
Current as of: March 22, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Elizabeth T. Russo MD - Internal Medicine & Christine R. Maldonado PhD - Behavioral Health