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Avoid the vacation relapse

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As we have discussed many times on this forum, quitting smoking can be difficult, but staying quit can be even harder. Part of the reason that relapse is so common among smokers who initially quit successfully (e.g. for a month) is that whereas during the first month the new ex-smoker is really determined and focused on quiting, its hard to maintain that level of motivation forever. The novelty wears off, and then a combination of circumstances leads to a lapse. The most common things leading to a lapse smoke are: availability of tobacco, experience of a negative mood state (e.g. anger, depression, anxiety, etc), and thoughts that enable smoking (“one wont hurt”….”it doesn’t really count if its someone else’s” etc).

Many ex-smokers say that they particularly want to smoke when they are in a “stressful” situation. At this time of year many of us are on or preparing to go on a vacation…often with family. Now although vacations are supposed to be fun and maybe relaxing, very often it doesn’t turn out that way. In fact vacation trips typically get a large number of points on “stress scales” that are designed to measure how much stress an individual has experienced recently. Part of the reason is that any change in ones life requires coping and adjustment and a vacation trip involves considerable changes (travel, different routine, different people etc). Family vacations in particular can be stressful to the parents (and also sometimes for the kids) and sometimes that stress can increase the risk of trying a cigarette again.

Even for people going on vacation without the kids, vacations can trigger lapse smoking. Very often vacations are viewed as a time to relax and wind down, or to blow off a bit of steam. That could include drinking alcohol and eating more than usual and also smoking. Some vacation lapses occur because the individual convinces him/herself that it doesn’t count if its on vacation. Unfortunately, as many of you know, these “innocent” lapse cigarettes very often lead to a full relapse.

So how can that be avoided? The first rule is “forewarned is forearmed”. This means that being aware that the although the vacation is intended to be fun, it may have its stressful moments which may trigger some desires to smoke. The next thing is to try to anticipate some of the triggers and make plans to avoid lapse smoking. Part of these plans should relate to how vulnerable you feel to relapsing. If you have only just quit a few weeks ago, and are still craving a cigarette on a frequent basis, then its probably not a great plan to go on vacation with a group of smokers to a place where smoking in bars and restaurants is allowed, (e.g. Las Vegas). Similarly, if you are still taking some form of smoking cessation medicine it is important to make plans in advance to ensure that you take enough with you so you don’t run out.

There are a few other things that you should prepare for. If you are flying internationally or even to certain US states you will probably have the opportunity to buy much cheaper cigarettes than in your home state. That should be anticipated and not treated as an opportunity too good to miss. It is also worth doing a bit of research to find out the indoor smoking policies at the place you are going. For those of us who are lucky enough to live in a place that has band smoking indoors it can come as a bit of a surprise to vacation in a place where half the people in the bar appear to be smoking. One final thing to do is to take stuff with you that you will find enjoyable and that can help you relax and take your mind off smoking. For some people it will be a couple of good books, for some its their Ipod with their favorite music (and don’t forget the charger), and for others it’s the running shoes so you can get fit while you have the time. Sometimes being on vacation and finding yourself at a loose end on a rainy afternoon can lead to thoughts of smoking also.

Of course the main thing is to go into the vacation with a positive attitude…and plan to do the fun and healthy things that it is sometimes hard to find time for when we are busy working or looking after the home. Make up your mind that nomatter what happens on the vacation, if you can return home without smoking that will be a success. Enjoy that hard earned vacation and the money you have saved by not smoking!
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About the Author


MA, MAppSci, PhD

Dr. Jonathan Foulds is an expert in the field of tobacco addiction.

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