How to Use Mindfulness to Quit Smoking

Making the decision to quit smoking is easy—your health and quite possibly your life depend on it. But following through is a much more difficult proposition. Nicotine is a highly addictive substance from a chemical standpoint, and on top of that, the act of smoking can become ingrained in your day-to-day habits and routines, making it even harder to kick.

There are many different strategies for smoking cessation, such as going cold turkey, substituting snacks or beverages, distracting yourself with hobbies and activities, exercising and sometimes taking medications. If these techniques don’t achieve the results you want, try tapping into the power of your mind.

"Mindfulness is the ability to be fully and presently aware of our thoughts, feelings and surroundings, all without passing judgment or being reactive," explains Lynell Ross, certified health and wellness coach and founder and managing director of Zivadream. "In the context of quitting smoking, we must recognize the physical cravings that long-term nicotine use has created and overcome these urges through mindful recognition."

Try these expert strategies for using mindfulness to steer clear of smoking.

Time your cravings.

"Mindfulness is helpful for those who are trying to quit smoking because it allows them to learn that they can experience the physical sensations of cravings without acting on them," notes Amanda Stemen, licensed therapist and owner of FUNdaMENTAL Growth, a therapy, coaching and consulting business in Los Angeles. "If they can stay entirely present with those sensations, after two minutes (or even sooner), they’ll notice the sensations begin to subside and eventually disappear."

Stemen advises her clients to "surf the urge" and ride it out, like the psychological version of surfing a wave. When an uncomfortable physical sensation arises, she recommends setting a timer for 120 seconds, noticing how the feelings shift and change over that time. If the level of discomfort is still high at the end of that period, set the timer again and notice how it continues to change.

"You can do this as many times as you'd like—the idea is to learn that you can withstand anything for a couple of minutes," she explains. "When the discomfort lessens, you're more likely to make a choice that's better in line with your goals and values."

Do simple breathing sessions.

To train your brain to become present in daily life, Bart Wolbers, co-author of a book on the science of mindfulness, suggests starting with a five-minute daily mindfulness exercise and gradually building up to 30 minutes.

"The simplest way to commit to this exercise is to focus on your breathing in a silent room for a few minutes a day," he says. "The goal is not to stop having thoughts altogether or avoid distractions. It’s natural for the mind to wander to the past or present. When this happens, focus on gently returning your awareness to your breath."

Over time, says Wolbers, this daily practice will increase your ability to shift your focus from the craving.

Use the RAIN technique.

Kristen Jindra, LPCC at Connected Psychology, uses the RAIN technique with her smoking cessation clients:
  • R: Recognize and become aware of urges or cravings.
  • A: Accept the current moment for what it is and don’t try to avoid it.
  • I: Investigate the experience. What are you thinking? What sensations do you notice in your body? What do you feel?
  • N: Practice non-identification for awareness that your thoughts or emotions do not define you—they are simply a passing part of you.
"The goal of the RAIN technique is to teach you to check in with yourself and recognize what you are truly experiencing, which can help you identify patterns you can change," Jindra says. "Instead of trying to distract yourself or avoid a craving, RAIN teaches you how to move through the feeling instead of away from it."

Do an object exercise.

At the moment you become aware of a craving, Wolbers recommends focusing on three different objects in the room and naming them. For instance, you might notice your laptop and think to yourself, "This is a laptop," and then do the same thing for the desk and the cup on your desk.

"This exercise engages the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is involved with long-term planning, impulse control and abstract thought," noted Wolbers. "The amygdala, on the other hand, is like the alarm bell in your brain that causes you to take emotional decisions, such as picking up a cigarette."

The object-naming exercise will return your brain to the present, unlike the cravings, which usually involve a future state, such as "If I get those cigarettes at the gas station, I'll feel so much better."

Focus on your reasons for quitting.

When you feel a craving coming on, Ross recommends refocusing on the reasons driving you to quit smoking, whether that’s your children and spouse, your health, the cost of smoking or other motivating factors. "Let these thoughts flow through your mind and overtake the subconscious physical craving," she says. "End your quick break with a reaffirmation that works for you, and then get back to living your life."