How to Cope with Nicotine Withdrawal

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

You’ve finally made the decision to break free from the clutches of nicotine addiction. You’re eager to embrace a healthier lifestyle, but suddenly, it hits you like a wave – nicotine withdrawal. You feel irritable and anxious, your hands are trembling, and you’re experiencing intense cravings for just one more hit of nicotine. You may feel overwhelmed, but don’t lose hope. You’re not alone in this journey, and there are tried-and-true strategies that can help you cope with these challenging symptoms.

In this comprehensive guide, I’ll provide you with some tools and techniques to navigate the stormy waters of nicotine withdrawal. As an addiction counsellor, I’ve supported several clients through this process and am sharing some of the resources that have been the most useful. This is not meant to be followed as a step-by-step guide. Rather, it is meant to serve as a buffet of strategies, so I encourage you to take what is useful and leave the rest.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Techniques

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on helping individuals develop psychological flexibility by accepting their thoughts and feelings without judgment and committing to value-based actions. ACT techniques can be beneficial for coping with nicotine withdrawal by promoting healthier responses to cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

Key ACT techniques

Acceptance

Acceptance involves acknowledging your withdrawal symptoms and cravings without trying to suppress or control them. Instead of fighting against these feelings, allow them to be present and recognize that they are temporary. This can reduce the intensity of the symptoms and help you respond more effectively to cravings.

Cognitive defusion

Cognitive defusion involves distancing yourself from your thoughts and recognizing that they are not facts. When experiencing cravings or negative thoughts during withdrawal, practice observing these thoughts without getting caught up in them. This can help you reduce the power that these thoughts have over your actions.

Value-based actions

Identify your values and reasons for quitting nicotine, such as improving your health or being a role model for your loved ones. When cravings or withdrawal symptoms arise, remind yourself of these values and focus on actions that align with them. This can help you stay committed to your goal of quitting nicotine.

ACT-based resources

The ICanQuit App incorporates ACT techniques, offering a range of resources and exercises designed to help you develop psychological flexibility and cope with withdrawal symptoms. These tools can help you practice acceptance, cognitive defusion, and value-based actions, increasing your chances of successfully quitting nicotine.

The App allows you to track your progress, including the number of days since quitting, money saved, and health improvements. Visualizing your achievements can provide motivation and a sense of accomplishment, reinforcing your commitment to quitting nicotine.

It also offers a community feature where you can connect with others who are also on their quitting journey. Sharing experiences, advice, and encouragement can help you feel supported and less alone during your withdrawal process.

Build Intrinsic Motivation

Fostering intrinsic motivation can significantly improve your chances of successfully quitting nicotine. When you are intrinsically motivated to quit, the desire to overcome withdrawal symptoms comes from within, making it easier to maintain your commitment despite the challenges that may arise. To strengthen intrinsic motivation, focus on the personal benefits of quitting, such as improved health, increased self-esteem, or better relationships with loved ones.

Identify your values

Take the time to reflect on and identify your core values. Consider what matters most to you and how quitting nicotine aligns with these values. Write down your values and keep them visible as a reminder of your commitment to quitting.

Set value-based goals

Create specific, value-based goals related to quitting nicotine. For example, if health is a core value, set a goal to exercise regularly or improve your diet as part of your quitting journey. By setting value-based goals, you strengthen your connection to your values and reinforce your intrinsic motivation to quit.

Visualize success

Visualize yourself successfully overcoming nicotine withdrawal and living in alignment with your values. This mental exercise can help you stay focused on your goals and maintain your intrinsic motivation throughout the quitting process.

Reflect on your progress

Regularly reflect on your progress and the ways in which quitting nicotine has brought you closer to living in alignment with your values. Acknowledge your achievements, and use them as motivation to continue your journey towards a nicotine-free life.

For more information on intrinsic motivation see my article, How Does Motivation Work?

For more strategies on how to build intrinsic motivation, see my article on How to Find Motivation.

Judson Brewer’s Urge Surfing Method

Urge surfing is a mindfulness-based technique developed by Dr. Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist specializing in addiction treatment. The method involves observing cravings and withdrawal symptoms as they arise, without acting on them or trying to suppress them. Instead, individuals learn to “surf” these urges, allowing them to come and go without being overwhelmed or giving in to them.

Urge surfing is based on the idea that cravings and withdrawal symptoms are like waves—they build in intensity, reach a peak, and then subside. By recognizing that cravings are temporary and will pass, individuals can learn to ride out these waves without giving in to the urge to use nicotine.

Urge surfing encourages individuals to cultivate a nonjudgmental awareness of their cravings and withdrawal symptoms. This involves observing the physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions associated with withdrawal, without judging them or trying to control them.

Urge surfing incorporates mindfulness techniques to help individuals stay present and focused on the current moment, rather than getting caught up in thoughts about the past or future. By focusing on the present, individuals can more effectively manage their cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

Recognize the craving

When a craving arises, take a moment to acknowledge it and label it as an urge or craving. This can help create a mental distance between you and the craving, making it easier to observe and manage.

Observe the craving

Pay attention to the physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions associated with the craving. Notice how these sensations change over time and try to stay present with the experience, without judging it or trying to control it.

Ride the wave

As you observe the craving, remind yourself that it is like a wave—it will build, peak, and eventually subside. Practice patience and perseverance as you ride out the wave, knowing that it will pass, and you don’t need to act on it.

Urge surfing has been shown to be an effective technique for managing cravings and withdrawal symptoms in various forms of addiction, including nicotine addiction. By fostering a nonjudgmental awareness of cravings and teaching individuals to ride out these urges, urge surfing can help reduce the likelihood of relapse and support long-term success in quitting nicotine.

To learn more, you can check out Judson Brewer’s book, The Craving Mind.

Allen Carr’s Easyway Method

Allen Carr’s method, also known as the Easyway, is a popular approach to quitting nicotine that focuses on changing the way individuals perceive the act of smoking or using nicotine products. The method aims to remove the fear and anxiety associated with quitting by addressing the psychological aspects of nicotine addiction.

Changing perceptions about nicotine

Allen Carr’s method emphasizes the importance of understanding the true nature of nicotine addiction and recognizing that it offers no real benefits. The method encourages individuals to see nicotine as a source of relief from withdrawal symptoms rather than as a source of pleasure or stress relief. This shift in perception can help break the cycle of addiction and reduce cravings.

Removing the fear of quitting

The Easyway method aims to eliminate the fear and anxiety associated with quitting nicotine by focusing on the positive aspects of a nicotine-free life. The method encourages individuals to view quitting as a liberating and empowering experience rather than a loss or sacrifice. This positive mindset can help reduce the psychological barriers to quitting and make the withdrawal process easier.

No use of willpower or substitutes

Unlike other methods that often rely on willpower or nicotine substitutes, Allen Carr’s method aims to remove the desire to smoke or use nicotine products altogether. By addressing the psychological aspects of addiction, the method helps individuals quit without feeling deprived or relying on substitutes.

Gradual quitting process

The Easyway method does not require individuals to quit nicotine immediately. Instead, the method encourages individuals to continue using nicotine products while they work through the materials and gradually change their mindset. Once they have fully embraced the principles of the method, quitting is expected to be a natural and effortless transition.

Many individuals have reported success with Allen Carr’s method, attributing their ability to quit nicotine to the positive mindset and changed perceptions promoted by the Easyway approach. While the method may not work for everyone, it has helped thousands of people quit nicotine without the need for willpower or substitutes.

To learn more about the Easyway method, check out Allen Carr’s Easy Way To Stop Smoking.

Other Non-pharmacological Approaches

Incorporating exercise and physical activity

Regular exercise can be an invaluable tool in managing nicotine withdrawal symptoms. Engaging in physical activity releases endorphins, which help improve mood, reduce stress, and alleviate anxiety. Exercise also aids in combating weight gain, a common concern for those quitting nicotine. Furthermore, physical activity can serve as a healthy distraction from cravings and keep your mind occupied.

To make exercise a sustainable habit, start with small, achievable goals. Consider walking or jogging, joining a gym, or participating in group sports or fitness classes. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week. Find activities you enjoy, and try incorporating them into your daily routine, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or walking during your lunch break.

Employing relaxation techniques

Deep breathing exercises

Deep breathing exercises can help reduce stress, anxiety, and irritability during nicotine withdrawal. Practice inhaling slowly through your nose for a count of four, holding your breath for a count of four, and exhaling through your mouth for a count of four. Repeat this process several times whenever you feel overwhelmed or experience cravings.

Meditation and mindfulness practices

Meditation and mindfulness can help you manage withdrawal symptoms by promoting relaxation and increasing self-awareness. Set aside a few minutes each day for meditation or mindfulness exercises, such as focusing on your breath or practicing non-judgmental awareness of your thoughts and feelings. Over time, these practices can help you develop healthier coping mechanisms for dealing with stress and cravings.

Progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) involves tensing and relaxing different muscle groups to release tension and promote overall relaxation. Starting from your head and working down to your toes, tense each muscle group for five seconds and then release the tension for 15-20 seconds. Practicing PMR regularly can help alleviate anxiety and stress associated with nicotine withdrawal.

Utilizing distraction techniques

Engaging in hobbies and interests

Focusing on hobbies and interests can serve as a healthy distraction from withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Rediscover past hobbies or explore new ones, such as painting, cooking, reading, or gardening. Engaging in activities that require concentration can help keep your mind occupied and reduce the intensity of cravings.

Connecting with friends and family

Spending time with friends and family can provide emotional support and distraction during the withdrawal process. Share your quitting journey with your loved ones, and ask for their encouragement and understanding. Participate in social activities that don’t involve nicotine, such as movie nights, game nights, or group outings.

Using mental puzzles or games

Mental puzzles and games, such as crossword puzzles, Sudoku, or mobile app games, can be an effective way to divert your attention from cravings. These activities require concentration and can help keep your mind engaged and focused on something other than withdrawal symptoms.

Exploring oral substitutes

Sugar-free gum

Chewing sugar-free gum can help manage oral cravings and reduce the urge to use nicotine. Keep gum readily available, especially during situations when cravings are likely to be stronger, such as after meals or during breaks at work.

Hard candy

Sucking on hard candy can provide a temporary oral fixation and help curb cravings. Opt for sugar-free varieties to avoid excessive sugar intake.

Herbal teas

Sipping herbal teas, such as chamomile, peppermint, or green tea, can help soothe withdrawal symptoms and provide a calming effect. These teas can also help with oral fixation and serve as a healthy alternative to nicotine. Experiment with different flavors and blends to find the ones you enjoy the most.

Pharmacological Approaches

Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT)

Types of NRT products

NRT products provide a controlled dose of nicotine to help reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings without the harmful chemicals found in tobacco products. Available NRT options include nicotine gum, patches, lozenges, inhalers, and nasal sprays.

Using NRT correctly is crucial for its effectiveness. Follow the instructions on the packaging or consult with a healthcare professional to ensure proper usage. Do not combine different NRT products without consulting a healthcare provider, and avoid using nicotine-containing products while using NRT.

NRT can double the chances of successfully quitting nicotine when used in conjunction with behavioral support. However, NRT may cause side effects such as skin irritation, headaches, or gastrointestinal issues. Consult a healthcare provider if side effects are persistent or severe.

Non-nicotine medications

Bupropion (Zyban)

Bupropion is an antidepressant medication that can help reduce nicotine withdrawal symptoms and cravings. It is available by prescription and should be started one to two weeks before your quit date.

Varenicline (Chantix)

Varenicline is a prescription medication that works by blocking nicotine receptors in the brain, reducing the pleasurable effects of nicotine and easing withdrawal symptoms. It is typically started one week before your quit date.

Precautions and potential side effects

Consult with a healthcare provider before using prescription medications for nicotine cessation, as they may have potential side effects or interact with other medications. Common side effects may include nausea, insomnia, or vivid dreams. Report any severe or persistent side effects to your healthcare provider.

Alternative Approaches

Acupuncture

Acupuncture involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body to stimulate the release of endorphins and promote relaxation. It is believed to help balance the body’s energy flow and alleviate withdrawal symptoms.

While some studies have shown promising results for acupuncture as a nicotine cessation aid, more research is needed to establish its effectiveness conclusively. Acupuncture is generally considered safe when performed by a qualified practitioner. However, consult your healthcare provider before trying acupuncture to ensure it is appropriate for your situation.

Hypnotherapy

Hypnotherapy involves guiding individuals into a deeply relaxed state and using suggestions to modify behaviors, emotions, or attitudes related to nicotine use. The goal is to change the subconscious associations with nicotine, making it easier to quit.

Hypnotherapy techniques for nicotine cessation may include guided imagery, positive affirmations, or aversion therapy. While some individuals report success with hypnotherapy, the evidence regarding its effectiveness is mixed. More research is needed to determine its overall success rates.

Support Resources for Additional Help

Local and online support groups

Joining support groups can provide valuable emotional and practical support during your nicotine withdrawal journey. These groups connect you with others who are experiencing similar challenges, enabling you to share your experiences, learn from others, and gain encouragement. Support groups can help reduce feelings of isolation and provide a safe space to discuss your struggles and successes.

To find the right support group, consider factors such as location, meeting frequency, and group size. Local community centers, hospitals, or healthcare clinics may offer in-person support groups. Online support groups and forums can also provide a convenient and accessible option. Research and try out different groups to find the one that best fits your needs and preferences.

National quitline and smoking cessation programs

National quitlines, such as 1-800-QUIT-NOW in the United States, offer free telephone-based counseling and support for individuals trying to quit nicotine. These services often provide personalized coaching, educational materials, and referrals to local resources. Some quitlines may also offer free or discounted nicotine replacement therapy products.

Research shows that utilizing quitline services can significantly increase the chances of successfully quitting nicotine. Many individuals who have successfully quit nicotine credit the support and resources provided by quitlines as instrumental in their journey. Reading testimonials and success stories can provide motivation and inspiration during your withdrawal process.

Mobile apps and websites

Several mobile apps and websites are available to help you track your progress, set goals, and access support during your nicotine withdrawal journey. Popular apps include QuitNow!, Smoke Free, and QuitGuide. These apps often feature progress trackers, health improvement indicators, personalized plans, and community support features.

Using technology for smoking cessation can provide convenient, on-demand support and resources. Mobile apps and websites allow you to access information, track your progress, and connect with others at any time and from anywhere. Additionally, these tools can help you visualize your progress and celebrate your achievements, increasing motivation and self-efficacy.

Professional help from healthcare providers

If you’re struggling to cope with nicotine withdrawal symptoms or find that your efforts to quit are not successful, consider seeking professional help from a healthcare provider. Healthcare providers can offer personalized guidance, support, and medication recommendations based on your unique needs and medical history.

Types of healthcare providers and their roles in smoking cessation
Various healthcare providers can play a role in supporting your smoking cessation journey, including primary care physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, and certified tobacco treatment specialists. These professionals can assess your needs, recommend appropriate treatments or therapies, and monitor your progress. They can also provide referrals to specialized services, such as support groups or counseling, to further enhance your chances of success.

Conclusion

In conclusion, overcoming nicotine withdrawal is a challenging but rewarding journey that you have the power to navigate. By exploring various strategies such as non-pharmacological and pharmacological approaches, behavioral therapies, alternative therapies, and support resources, you can find the methods that work best for you. Embracing mindfulness techniques like urge surfing, as well as focusing on your values and intrinsic motivation, can further strengthen your resolve and commitment to quitting.

Remember that each person’s experience is unique, and the key to success lies in discovering the combination of tools and resources that resonate with you. As you continue on your path towards a nicotine-free life, be patient with yourself, celebrate your progress, and never hesitate to reach out for support when needed. Your journey may be challenging, but the benefits of living a healthier, more fulfilling life in alignment with your values make every step worth the effort.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out BetterHelp.com. It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.


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