The path to quitting: not smoking becomes an everyday thing

There is no single or correct way to quit using nicotine products. Some go cold turkey, whereas others prefer gradually cutting down.

The duration and number of withdrawal symptoms vary from person to person. Withdrawal symptoms are a sign of the body cleansing itself. The symptoms are usually at their most intense during the first week, but they gradually ease off in the space of 3 to 4 weeks.

The most common withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Irritability
  • Impatience
  • Nicotine cravings
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Problems with sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Feeling unwell
  • Increased appetite and sugar cravings.

For some people, drinking coffee can make the withdrawal symptoms worse, since caffeine leaves the body at a slower rate after you have quit using nicotine products.

Quitting smoking and nicotine is a change for both the person and the body. This change may involve not only actual withdrawal symptoms but other temporary symptoms and feelings. Other physical reactions may include:

  • Cough, sometimes wet cough, which can last from 2 to 8 weeks
  • Bad metallic or bloody taste in the mouth
  • Fatigue and feeling low.
  • Keep a diary of your achievements. Be happy about every day you have gone without smoking.
  • Use nicotine products only on special occasions.
  • Be prepared for withdrawal symptoms. Consider whether you want to use nicotine replacement products. If you want to, buy them and carry them with you.
  • Plan how to navigate social situations without nicotine products, especially if your friends still use them.
  • Don’t get discouraged if you slip up. Start again.
  • When you find yourself craving for nicotine, do not act on that impulse but wait a few minutes instead. For some people, chewing gum, pastilles or a glass of water can help alleviate nicotine cravings.
  • Find habits and activities that last a couple of minutes to replace smoking, such as listening to your favourite music or going outside for a minute.
  • Be prepared for needing to put a little more effort into concentrating at work. Your brain is used to nicotine, so it will take some time to get your ability to concentrate back to normal.
  • Be prepared for feeling nervous. Try breathing and relaxation exercises and avoid excess stress and drinking. For some people, a moderately intense workout helps with agitation and withdrawal symptoms.
  • Spend time outdoors and remember regular meals and rest. Eat small, regular meals and plenty of vegetables and fibre. Drink plenty of water.
  • Remember all the positive things you will gain by cutting down on and quitting nicotine products.
  • Coffee, tea, and certain foods can be triggers for some people. Think about what choices you can make to support your smoke-free lifestyle.
  • If you suffer from low mood, don’t stay at home worrying over things, but force yourself to get out of the house. Find something fun to do: call a friend, go see a movie or a concert, or go jogging. Do something you’ve never done before.

Quitting the use of nicotine products often causes mood swings and feelings of anger and rage.  Quitting can also cause anxiety, low mood and severe fatigue, which are withdrawal symptoms. For some people, the fear of gaining weight can make it difficult to stay smoke-free.

Sometimes it can seem like smoking would make you feel better. However, the relief offered by nicotine is temporary – especially if the nicotine habit itself is the source of your low mood. In those moments, you should keep in mind that withdrawal symptoms will get easier over time.

The use of nicotine products also affects neurotransmitter action. You need to adopt new habits and routines and learn to face feelings of worry, sadness and anxiety without nicotine.

When feeling low, some people find it helpful to focus on the present and pay attention to all the positive things. Living smoke-free usually brings a sense of freedom and improves both your mood and self-esteem.

Weight gain is a common consequence of quitting smoking. On average, people put on 3–5 kilograms within one year of quitting, but the weight usually stabilises over time. Women tend to gain more weight than men on average. Weight gain is a result of many factors, the most significant of which are increased eating and a slower basal metabolism.

Smoking dulls taste. The sense of taste becomes more sensitive again after quitting smoking, which often leads to eating more. One of the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal is sugar cravings, which last an average of 90 days. The basal metabolism slows down by about 70 kilocalories per day. This accounts for less than 50% of weight gain. Starting to use nicotine products again does not help shed the weight that was already gained.

The health benefits of quitting smoking and nicotine are substantial even if you gain weight. A healthy diet and regular exercise curb weight gain during withdrawal and help reverse the weight gain. If you have concerns about weight gain, you can talk to a healthcare professional. Personal weight management guidance is an effective way to prevent weight gain during nicotine replacement therapy.

Most slips happen within the first three months after quitting. A slip can cause feelings of failure, disappointment, anger and frustration. You shouldn’t give up. Setbacks are a normal part of the path to quitting.

If you slip, you should take it as a learning experience. When you recognise what caused you to slip, you can understand what your high-risk situations are and what kind of coping strategies you should develop.

The most common reasons for slips are:

  • Motivation isn’t strong enough
  • Poor planning and preparation before quitting
  • Underestimating the addiction
  • Not sticking to the nicotine replacement therapy or instructions
  • Lack of information
  • Lack of support.

For the future, it may be useful to answer the following questions:

  • Did I have enough alternative activities and habits?
  • Does my nicotine replacement therapy method need checking?
  • Did I get enough support?
  • Was I rewarding myself enough for staying on the path to quitting?
  • Was my decision to quit premature, and was I prepared and committed enough to make the change?
  • Do I need more time to reflect and plan, or should I try quitting again straight away?

Many people who use nicotine products, contemplate quitting, or are on their path to quitting can feel guilty, ashamed and not good enough at some point. Guilt can be a result of feeling like you are acting against your sense of right and wrong.

It’s understandable that the risks, diseases and progression of diseases associated with the use of nicotine products cause irritation and low mood. It’s not wise to wallow in negative emotions and feelings of guilt. Each day is a chance to start your smoke-free life and stick to your decision without slips.

For some people, the tobacco and nicotine addiction is so strong that quitting will require persistent efforts and support from loved ones, peers and healthcare professionals.

The best way is to choose a sport you enjoy, as the health benefits of physical exercise are a result of regular and moderate-intensity exercise. Walking is an example of an activity that yields positive results, even when divided into shorter chunks throughout the day.

Benefits of exercise:

  • improved mood and alertness
  • less anxiety and stress
  • relief for withdrawal symptoms
  • improved self-confidence and sense of self-efficacy
  • an alternative to past habits
  • support for weight management
  • improved sleep rhythm
  • changes in neurotransmitters: pleasure from serotonin and body’s natural opiates (endogenous opiates) instead of nicotine
  • increased release of endorphins
  • better overall well-being.