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  • Writer's pictureEli

Smoking Cessation - The Psychology and Biochemistry of Quitting: Understanding the Challenges

Updated: Oct 31, 2023




You may have heard repeatedly that smoking is harmful to your health and quitting is a challenging process. However, I want to offer you a new perspective that will bring hope back: it's possible to quit smoking even though it can be difficult, as long as you understand the biological and psychological factors at play. By gaining knowledge about the addiction to smoking and the ways it affects the brain and behavior, you can empower yourself to overcome the habit and lead a healthier life.
Breaking Down the Multidimensional Nature of Smoking Addiction The addiction to smoking has two main components. Biologically, it involves the addictive properties of nicotine and the triggers of important neurotransmitters and hormones. Psychologically, it serves as a coping mechanism for stress relief, anxiety reduction and mood regulation. Smoking becomes a habit intertwined with daily routines, and is influenced by socialising and celebration with alcohol. Additionally, individuals may have inaccurate beliefs about smoking addiction and an emotional attachment to it.

Why it is difficult to quit smoking

  • Biological 1) Addictive nature of nicotine 2) Trigger for hormones and neurotransmitters

  • Psychological 1) Coping mechanism and emotional regulation 2) Habit-forming nature of smoking 3) Socialising 4) Inaccurate Beliefs 5) Psychological attachment

 
Biological Addiction - Addictive properties of nicotine Nicotine is a very addictive substance that quickly flows through our bloodstream and reaches our brain within 15 seconds. It's considered the third most addictive substance after heroin and cocaine. Once our brain and body become addicted to nicotine, the need to smoke becomes similar to a vital function, making it extremely difficult to control with willpower alone.

For nerds: A nicotine regulator

Physical phase of quitting smoking takes around three weeks. Once we stop smoking we may experience around fifty intense cravings to smoke over this period as our body adjusts to absence of nicotine. During nicotine withdrawal, people often experience physiological symptoms that can affect their mood, motivation, and memory. Additionally, it can include changes in energy levels, sleep, appetite, and cravings. We usually relapse not because of the pleasure of smoking, but due to the unpleasant side effects of withdrawal. A proper diet and supplements can reduce these nicotine cravings. If we stay nicotine-free for around three week, the physical addiction phase is over. However, the psychological addiction phase still remains.
Biological Addiction - Triggering of hormones and neurotransmitters

For nerds: Brain on nicotine



Our feelings and actions are affected by certain chemicals in our body called hormones and neurotransmitters. When we smoke, nicotine can cause our brain to release various types of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, endorphin, and glutamate. As a result, smokers tend to have consistently elevated levels of these chemicals in their body, which wouldn't normally be present. If we continue smoking, our body gets used to these chemicals and needs more of them to produce the same effects. This is why smoking can be addictive, as individuals become hooked on not only nicotine but also the changes it triggers in their body - the heightened levels of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, endorphin, and glutamate which can affect our energy, concentration, mood, motivation, sleep, and appetite.

For nerds: Brain on nicotine

Quitting smoking means more than just getting rid of nicotine. It can lower the levels of certain chemicals in our brain, which affects our mood, energy, ability to concentrate and even physical pain.

Nicotine withdrawal in details

All of these changes can happen at once, making it challenging for people who are trying to quit smoking. Withdrawal symptoms usually go away as our body adjusts over time, but it's important to support our body during this period to increase our chances of staying smoke-free. We can make changes to our diet and take supplements to balance out hormones and neurotransmitters. It might be well known that amino acid tyrosine increases the production of dopamine, whereas tryptophan will act on serotonin. But there are many factors that has to be taken into account to make it safe and effective - time, dosage, combination, and supportive food. The regulation of our body's biochemistry can also be controlled by our behavior, like exercise, breathing technique, sauna - but again, to make it safe and effective for the nicotine withdrawal it has to be tailored for our specific needs.

 

The power of psychological attachment goes way beyond the addiction of our body to nicotine.


Psychological addiction - Coping mechanism Smoking can serve as a coping mechanism or a means of regulating emotions. At first, we may use smoking as a way to solve a problem or alleviate discomfort, such as changing our thoughts or feelings, easing physical pain, regulating emotions, or simply distracting ourselves. Nevertheless, smoking only provides temporary relief without addressing the root cause of the problem, yet adding a new one - addiction. Sometimes, people may use smoking as a solution for their inadequacies or social awkwardness, using it as a way to break the ice or to run away from challenging situations. This can make it difficult to quit smoking without finding alternative coping strategies that address the underlying issues.
Psychological addiction - Habit Smoking can become a habit that's hard to break since it often becomes intertwined with daily routines like taking a smoke break, smoking with a cup of coffee or after a meal. Smoking is also seen as a way to take a break and have some time for ourselves, taking slow deep breaths and convincing ourselves that cigarettes have a calming impact on us. However, in reality it's more about taking a break from the world and retreating for a while. Additionally, combining smoking with socialising or celebrating, especially when alcohol is involved, creates additional layer of difficulty to quit smoking.

For nerds: Alcohol and smoking

Psychological addiction - Inaccurate beliefs Many people hold inaccurate beliefs about smoking that hinder their ability to quit. One such belief is that they are too weak to quit smoking. Another false belief is that smoking helps calm us down. However, smoking is actually an excitatory activity that increases dopamine, norepinephrine, and glutamate levels in the brain. Instead, what truly helps us to relax and find calm is taking the time for ourselves, slowing down, and practicing deep breathing. Finally, we might believe that we are not addicted to smoking and can quit anytime, but we simply choose not to. This denial prevents us from facing the truth that addiction is in charge and ruling our behavior.

Quitting smoking with a holistic approach Your smoking addiction has two components: your body and your mind. To increase your chances of quitting smoking permanently, it's important to address both. On the physical side, you can create a plan that incorporates nutrition and behavior modifications that support quitting smoking. On the psychological side, seeking counselling or therapy can help you develop alternative coping strategies and address any underlying emotional issues that may have contributed to your smoking addiction. Hypnotherapy can also be a helpful tool to reprogram your subconscious and address limiting beliefs about quitting smoking.
Remember, nothing exists in isolation, and addressing both the physical and psychological aspects of your addiction can maximize your chances of becoming permanently cigarette-free.

Quit smoking: Holistic approach

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