Healthy Ways to Deal With Nicotine Withdrawal

Congratulations! You’ve made the super-smart decision to say goodbye to cigarettes—and to say hello to a healthier heart and lungs, reduced cancer risk, a stronger immune system and significant cost savings. But as amazing as the destination might be, the road to smoke-free living doesn’t come without a few bumps and potholes.

There’s a reason only 6 percent of the half of smokers who try to quit each year are able to successfully kick the habit: Nicotine is a highly addictive substance, delivering a rush of endorphins and dopamine that creates a craving for repeated doses of the drug. Also, long-term smoking in effect "rewires" the brain to reduce self-control and create a stronger dependence on cigarettes.

When someone stops smoking after becoming dependent, they typically experience these common withdrawal symptoms:
  • Intense cravings
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of sadness or depression
  • Coughing fits
  • Trouble concentrating or focusing 
  • Impaired memory
  • Increased appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
Symptoms can begin within just a few hours of the last cigarette and generally reach their most intense levels about three days after quitting. They will start to ease up in subsequent days and weeks, but their severity and duration will depend on how long and how much you’ve been smoking. The physical symptoms tend to taper off before the mental and emotional effects.

While there are some smoking cessation aids—such as nicotine gum, nicotine lozenges, nasal sprays and some prescription oral medications—that can help lessen withdrawal symptoms, there are other nicotine-free coping mechanisms that can make the transition more manageable.
  • Plan your day to set yourself up for success. If possible, plan things that are not too cognitively demanding if you are dealing with concentration difficulties, recommends licensed clinical health psychologist Dr. Aurelie Lucette. Try to fill your time with busy (yet productive) work like cleaning out closets, organizing photos and tackling home improvements to help distract you from cravings.
  • Break up your routine. You can ease withdrawal symptoms by avoiding regular triggers for smoking. For instance, if you used to smoke every day while walking to work, try taking the bus or riding a bike, suggests Dr. Lucette. "Triggers are strongly imprinted in the brain, so you want to trick your brain and change up the routine," he says.
  • Focus on work. While work can sometimes be stressful, it can also serve as a productive distraction from cravings. "Focusing on your work and career with renewed vigor and attention will go a long way toward ensuring that you don't succumb to withdrawal symptoms," says Jamie Bacharach, a licensed medical acupuncturist and health coach with extensive experience helping patients overcome nicotine withdrawal.
  • Exercise. Regular physical activity has a host of physical and mental benefits, including helping to curb nicotine dependence. "The endorphins released via exercise can help your body fight withdrawal symptoms and offer a new area of physical focus and distraction, which is critical when fighting withdrawal," says Bacharach.
  • Avoid excessive stress. While it’s not realistic to expect to eliminate stress altogether, Dr. Lucette recommends not planning your first "quit day" when you have other major stressors happening, such as filing your taxes, starting a new job or attending a daunting doctor's appointment.
  • Keep an "emergency kit" on hand to deal with cravings. When building your kit, Dr. Lucette suggests including things to keep your mouth busy and prevent you from reaching for a cigarette. This might be sugar-free gum, nicotine gum/lozenges, baby carrots, toothpicks, water, etc. Try to avoid including processed or sugar-packed snacks or drinks.
  • Implement relaxation techniques. Physical relaxation can help to reduce irritability and distract you from cravings, says Dr. Lucette. In particular, he recommends diaphragmatic breathing exercises as a helpful strategy.
  • Take naps as needed. "The more fatigued you are, the more difficult it is to resist cravings," Dr. Lucette points out. "Taking naps and getting more sleep can help you cope with fatigue when sleep is temporarily disrupted."
  • Seek social support. Inform your family and friends that you are planning to quit smoking and enroll their help, suggests Dr. Lucette. For example, pick someone supportive to text or call when you have a craving, or plan a fun weekend trip as a distraction during your first few days. If you need additional help, consider seeking out a therapist, support group or smoking cessation hotline.
  • Celebrate milestones. If you've reached a significant number of hours, days, weeks or months without nicotine, it deserves to be celebrated, notes Bacharach. "Indulging in fun but healthy and responsible celebrations when you've hit milestone lengths of time without nicotine can help maintain your motivation and give you the sense of accomplishment you need to keep going," she says.
With the right mix of behavioral strategies, distractions and positive affirmations, it is possible to manage nicotine withdrawal symptoms and reach your goal of a healthier, smoke-free life.