Coping with Smoking Relapse

Highlights

  1. Most slipups occur during the first week of trying to quit smoking.
  2. Recognizing and avoiding triggers such as stressful situations can greatly improve your success when trying to quit.
  3. A support network of friends, family, and your doctor will play an integral role in your effort to stop smoking.

Quitting smoking can be one of life’s most difficult challenges. You may need several attempts to finally reach your goal. The most common causes of relapse are stress, weight gain, and symptoms of nicotine and tobacco withdrawal.

The good news is that there are helpful ways of coping with smoking relapse. "Slips" may occur within the first week, months, or even years after you decide to quit smoking. While these unexpected urges may be dangerous, there are ways to cope with them.

I Slipped Up, Now What?

Most slipups occur within the first week of trying to quit smoking. Just because you take a puff or two of a cigarette or slide into a full-blown relapse doesn’t mean that you can’t begin again. The important thing to remember is that you’re still in control and can move forward in your efforts to quit smoking.

Also, remember that you’re not alone. Every year nearly 70 percent of all adult smokers report wanting to quit smoking completely. Millions of people try to quit smoking at least once during the year. Many people try a variety of methods to help them quit, including clinical interventions, counseling, nicotine replacement products, and alternative therapies.

A single slipup may result in negative feelings, depression, and self-condemnation. This can often lead to feelings of hopelessness and wanting to give up trying to quit. Several slips may result in a full-blown relapse, but it’s never too late to start again. When you come face-to-face with the desire to smoke again, avoid thinking that just one cigarette won’t hurt you. Instead, focus on the many health benefits you may enjoy from quitting smoking.

Relapse Triggers

Unexpected urges to smoke can be dangerous and cause you to relapse. Triggers, events, or circumstances can all work together to create a smoking relapse. It’s important to make yourself aware of these triggers and avoid them, if at all possible.

Common relapse triggers may include:

  • associating with other smokers, especially in a leisure environment
  • consuming alcohol
  • feeling overconfident
  • becoming isolated from friends, family members, and support group members
  • not getting enough sleep or rest
  • encountering stressful situations on a frequent basis
  • becoming a victim, with feelings of anger and self-pity
  • adapting to a negative, pessimistic attitude

By eliminating as many triggers as possible, you can greatly increase your chance of quitting smoking successfully. While it may be impossible to eliminate all triggers, doing your best to prevent them ahead of time will provide you with a better likelihood of success.

Stress is one of the strongest smoking triggers, but also one that can be greatly reduced. Relieving stress can improve your quitting efforts both before and during a stressful situation. Learning to cope by using stress outlets can lead to success. Exercise, going for a walk, taking a warm bath, and meditation are all useful ways to eliminate stressful triggers in your life.

Surrounding yourself with a good network of supporters is helpful when coping with a smoking relapse or slipup. It’s important to not get down on yourself and your failed attempts, but move forward and not give up.

Don’t Give Up

Whether you’ve relapsed on one occasion or one hundred, you shouldn’t give up your efforts to quit smoking. Most people try several times before succeeding. If you have relapsed, treat this incident as something to learn from, and an experience that you can use later on. Each and every attempt to quit smoking leads you that much closer to success.

Surrounding yourself with supporters can be encouraging during the quitting phase. Former smokers report that a good support network made up of family, friends, and co-workers is very helpful when trying to quit. If you don’t have a large network of friends or family members at your disposal, your doctor and other health care professionals can offer support and encouragement.

Support groups can provide encouragement at just the right time and assist you in getting back on track after a slip or relapse. Tobacco help lines can be found through your health insurance company, local hospitals, and clinics or employers. Many have a phone line or website that provides useful information and assistance with smoking cessation.

You asked, we answered

  • When should a person consider using medication to help them quit?
  • If your initial attempts at quitting using behavioral approaches fail, talk to your doctor about medications that can help with smoking cessation. Your doctor may begin by recommending over-the-counter nicotine replacement therapy products. If these don’t work, your doctor may recommend stronger prescription medications. Many smokers have heard stories of people who just “gave it up” and quit “cold turkey.” But this is the exception and not the rule. Medications can help you to achieve your goal of becoming smoke free. 

    - Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC