Quitting cigarette smoking can be difficult no matter how you do it, but the idea of quitting cold turkey can seem especially daunting.
This isn’t easy, nor the most effective method of quitting smoking, but it can work for some. It may not be the right choice for everyone, but given the damage smoking causes to the body, getting it over and done with does have its appeal.
Smoking significantly increases your risk for disease, including several cancers. Every year smoking causes 1 out of 5 deaths in the United States, according to the estimate of the American Cancer Society.
There are many nicotine products available to help you wean off nicotine, but quitting cold turkey means giving up smoking all at once and cutting all nicotine full-stop, without the aid of any nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products or stop-smoking drugs. It has been suggested that quitting abruptly instead of gradually increases your chances of stopping for good.
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Among the reasons people cite for going cold turkey is the desire for a clean break from their habit. There can be many reasons for this, which are often quite motivating. Still, while worthwhile, the road ahead will have its challenges, as you are working to overcome an addiction.
Many ex-smokers have successfully quit this way. Those who are most successful in quitting smoking cold turkey know what to expect and prepare as best they can, for unavoidable withdrawal symptoms and cravings. You're most likely to succeed if you smoke fewer than 10 cigarettes a day and take the following steps to prepare yourself for a successful attempt at quitting smoking; one that even if not your first, is hopefully your last.
Prepare yourself mentally
Because you won't have the aid of NRT, it's particularly important that you are mentally ready. To be successful at quitting cold turkey, you will need to mentally prepare for what's often called "junkie thinking". This is, the many thoughts and rationalizations that can derail your quit-smoking plan (for example, Just one cigarette or one drag won't hurt).
One way to do this is to start jotting down the many reasons (both big and small) why you decided to quit smoking in the first place. Write them down on a piece of paper that you can carry with you at all times, or in the notes section of your smartphone, so you can add to and easily access the list when a moment of weakness hits.
Set a quit date
If think you're prepared mentally and ready to go cold turkey, pick a date two to four weeks in the future when you plan on quitting. Pick a quiet time of year when you have less on your calendar.
Stress can be a big trigger for smokers, making you reach for a cigarette, so don't try to quit around the time you have final exams, a big project due at work, or have other major stress-inducing events in your life.
Alternatively, if you're a social smoker, try to avoid a date around any festivities, like a wedding or class reunion.
Prepare for nicotine withdrawal
Quitting cold turkey is difficult, in large part, because nicotine withdrawal may be more severe when you abruptly stop smoking. Nicotine is highly addictive; rivaling cocaine, alcohol, and heroin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Like other drugs, you will experience some side effects as your body works hard to overcome the addiction and rid itself of harsh toxins and chemicals.
Nicotine withdrawal is a temporary phase of quitting smoking. If you stick with it, these symptoms will fade with time and better days will follow:
- Dry mouth
- A cough
- Sore throat
- Inability to concentrate
- Feeling hungrier than usual
Expect that these issues will occur and do what you can to be ready for them. For example, see if you can arrange with a friend to help you watch your children for a bit when you're feeling too tired. Keep a water bottle with you at all times, so that you remember to keep sipping. Stock up on throat lozenges in case you need them, and load your refrigerator up with healthy snacks you can reach for when hunger pangs kick in.
To avoid temptation, your first step is to gather and bin all smoking paraphernalia (lights, matches, ashtrays, etc.) from your home (inside and outside) and car.
During this time, you’ll also want to let any of your "smoking buddies" know that you won’t be joining them on smoke breaks, for happy hour, or whatever situation or place can be a trigger for you. Take it a step further and persuade one of your trusted friends to buddy up with you to quit smoking together, making sure that the person is as mentally prepared to quit smoking as you. You don’t need a buddy that will not resist the temptation to smoke at a time you desperately need each other’s support in the journey to quitting smoking.
Seek out support
Like nicotine withdrawal, psychological urges can be better managed if you understand and plan for them. Knowing that these urges do pass, in some cases, within moments, can really help.
Still, seeking support from your close friends and family is also important. Chances are, they are thrilled that you're quitting smoking. Let them help motivate and encourage you to stick with your stop-smoking plan. Ask them to help distract you from cravings by being available during your trigger moments for quick pep talks. Plan activities in smoke-free places like the mall, movie theater and many restaurants. Be understanding if you experience any irritability.
In addition to your doctor, you may check with your local hospital to see if they offer a program; or call any of the national quit-smoking lines, such as the National Cancer Institute (NCI). They offer support over the phone and can help with different ways of quitting. Here are their contact details, including toll-free number:
An online support forum can be a powerful tool to help you stay nicotine-free. You can depend on it 24/7 if, say, a craving strikes at 2 a.m. In-person support groups are also valuable, as you can meet local people who are going through the same experiences. Even reading or hearing about others' quit-smoking experiences can motivate and help you stay on track.
Create new habits
Is that morning cigarette with coffee the toughest to quit? Do you always light up the moment you get in your car after work? Do you tend to smoke more when you're stressed, bored, or hungry?
- Take an honest look at your smoking patterns and habits, and then figure out some simple, healthy and stress-free distractions and alternatives. For example:
- Wake up and go for a walk (and take a to-go cup for your coffee)
- Carpool to work with a non-smoker for those first few weeks of quitting
- Prepare some healthy, crunchy finger foods (cut-up veggies and fruits, seeds and nuts, fat-free popcorn)
- Keep your hands and mind busy by coloring, knitting, doing a puzzle, or painting your nails.
Start a journal about the positive effects of quitting smoking
Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do to improve your overall health.
For starters, your lung function improves up to 30 percent in two weeks to three months. Now that you've quit, are you noticing that you can walk up a flight of stairs without getting winded or is your complexion starting to brighten? Jot it down.
Quitting cold turkey might work well for you; but if it doesn't, no one expects it to be easy. Learn from experience and talk to your doctor about other options. You might find nicotine replacement therapy or other method is more effective at helping you quit for good.
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- MDedge, “Cold Turkey” Works Best for Smoking Cessation, [website] 2017, https://www.mdedge.com/clinicianreviews/article/134652/addiction-medicine/cold-turkey-works-best-smoking-cessation, (accessed October 31, 2019).
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