Quitting tobacco? Help your brain help you

Your brain has the ability to learn new habits and unlearn old ones throughout your life, and you can harness these abilities to help you quit tobacco. Every time you think a certain way, practice a particular task, or feel a specific emotion, your brain can act to strengthen one habit or weaken another. Think of your brain as a power grid. The well-traveled pathways are your habits—your established ways of thinking, feeling, and doing. Quitting a habit such as smoking requires more-than-usual effort, energy, and conscious control. Your brain has to seek and open new circuits to new pathways. As your brain travels the new circuits more and the old circuits less, you develop new, non-tobacco habits and leave your old tobacco habits behind.

Everyone knows there are benefits to quitting smoking. These include:

  • Reduced risk for cancer, stroke, infertility, heart and lung disease
  • Decreases in depression, anxiety, and stress
  • Improved mood and quality of life

The following recommendations can help you leverage your brain to help you work toward quitting smoking.

Own your why

Quitting tobacco is challenging, so staying in tune with your sense of meaning and purpose in life can help ease the short-term sacrifices that enable your long-term goals. “I choose to lead by example” versus “smoking isn’t good for me,” for instance, can help build accountability throughout your journey. Consider the following questions to discover your purpose for making this change and the values that might help keep you motivated. Recalling what you value most can effectively prepare you to quit and help you stay motivated throughout your journey.

  • What is most important to you?
  • What do you want to be known for?
  • Why are you making this change?

Focus on gains

For your brain, it’s likely that losses feel worse than gains feel good. In other words, you’re much more likely to think about what you might be missing out on than what you might gain from quitting tobacco. Reframe the questions you ask yourself so that saying “no” doesn’t necessarily equal a loss. The next time you crave a cigarette or dip, ask yourself, “By saying no to this, what am I saying yes to? Perhaps it’s a few more laps around the park with your toddler or a few more seconds off your PRT.

Make a simple plan

You can weaken bad habits while you build better ones by creating plans for how to deal with temptation. If-then planning is a powerful and simple way to close the gap between what you want to do and actually getting it done: If X happens, then I will do Y. If certain places and times might make you want to have a cigarette or dip, then plan ahead for the actions you can take to overcome those stumbling blocks.

  • If I feel like smoking, then I’m going to...
    • chew gum.
    • take a 10-minute walk around the building.
    • think about why I’m making this change for one full minute.

Try a program

You can’t always rely on reasoning to get you through your cravings, so don’t try to go it alone. HPRC offers numerous resources specifically designed for military personnel that offer free support and tools to help you kick the habit.

Debrief

Habits don’t usually disappear, which is why quitting smoking is so challenging. However, you can overcome yours over time. Each choice you make can strengthen one impulse while it weakens another, so choose wisely to help your brain help you. Over time, your choices become patterns, patterns become habits, and those new habits become your new normal. What will your new normal be after you quit smoking?

References

Brewer, J. A., Elwafi, H. M., & Davis, J. H. (2013). Craving to quit: Psychological models and neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness training as treatment for addictions. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 27(2), 366–379. doi:10.1037/a0028490

Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. 38, 69–119. doi:10.1016/s0065-2601(06)38002-1

Lewis, M. (2017). Addiction and the brain: Development, not disease. Neuroethics, 10(1), 7–18. doi:10.1007/s12152-016-9293-4

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2014). The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, and Office on Smoking and Health, Atlanta, GA, Retrieved from: https://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/reports/50-years-of-progress/full...

Wagner, D. D., Altman, M., Boswell, R. G., Kelley, W. M., & Heatherton, T. F. (2013). Self-regulatory depletion enhances neural responses to rewards and impairs top-down control. Psychological Science, 24(11), 2262–2271. doi:10.1177/0956797613492985