Why Quitting Smoking Cold Turkey Is So Hard... and 8 Tips for Success

Updated on May 27, 2017
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I was a heavy smoker for more than 30 years. After many attempts, I finally managed to kick the habit.

The Bad News

Most people who try to quit smoking go "cold turkey" the first time out—and most of them fail. That is because most smokers totally underestimate the power of nicotine addiction and completely overestimate their own ability to withstand the simultaneous onslaught of physical withdrawal symptoms and psychological triggers.

The combination almost inevitably brings even the strongest willed to their knees. Estimates are that only between three to ten percent of smokers are able to successfully quit using the cold turkey method. Not only that, but most smokers require at least three tries to successfully quit, and for many this means an initial cold turkey attempt followed by subsequent attempts using a variety of smoking cessation aids, including group support, electronic cigarettes, hypnosis, acupuncture, pharmaceuticals, and nicotine replacement therapy.

The Good News

On the other hand, smokers who do manage to throw away their cigarettes in one fell swoop have a better chance of still being tobacco-free six months after quitting than those who use other methods. It seems that while the chances of quitting successfully are slim using the cold turkey method, the chances of staying quit, once you are through the first few weeks, are excellent.

Why Quitting Cold Turkey is So Hard

I cannot stress enough that nicotine is a powerfully addictive substance. Usually, by the time you are ready to quit smoking, you are already totally addicted. Most people do not recognize the strength of the addiction until they try to quit. Usually, the first attempt at quitting is cold turkey and impromptu. You throw away your cigarettes on the spur of the moment, and figure you will just go on with your life. Next you experience nicotine withdrawal for the first time, and begin to get an idea—through chills, nausea, irritability, mental fuzziness, and depression—just how strong a hold nicotine has on your body.

At the same time you have to fight the psychological triggers every time you do things that you used to do with a cigarette in your hand—things like have a cup of coffee or a beer, or go to a party, read a book, talk on the phone, or perform any of dozens of acts that trigger a desire for a smoke.

Eventually, usually within 24 hours of quitting, you cave and start smoking again. You decide you just can't do it and you begin to have an idea of how trapped you are by your addiction. The truly resolute may stay clean for a few days or just bum cigarettes here and there, but it is a rare person who is able to just quit cold turkey and stay quit the first time out. The combination of physical withdrawal and psychological dependence is just too powerful.

Unfortunately, at this juncture, most people give up and go back to smoking, feeling weak, defeated, ashamed and all that good stuff. They tell themselves they will cut down or that smoking isn't that bad or they change brands or try cigars instead of cigarettes, but the bottom line is that after a failed attempt at cold turkey, most smokers are left feeling trapped, depressed, and unwilling to risk the pain of another failure.

How to Quit Cold Turkey

So, if you really want to go the cold turkey route, the key to success is getting through the first few days of nicotine withdrawal without having even one cigarette. That takes planning and knowledge. Do not underestimate the enemy. Addiction is a powerful adversary but here is the thing: If you can make it through three weeks without having even one puff, your body will be nicotine-free, the cravings will appreciably abate to a totally manageable level, and you will be well on the way to being an ex-smoker for good.

Here are some suggestions to help you succeed.

  1. Pick a quit date and prepare for the big dayby gathering up all ashtrays, lighters, half empty cigarette packs, etc. and putting it all in one place, ready to toss on the big day. . While you are still smoking, read everything you can get your hands on regarding quitting and talk to any friends and family who have successfully quit to get them on your side. You are going to need these folks. In some places there are actual weekly support groups that meet to help support quitters,such as nicotine anonymous, a 12 step program modeled on AA. You might want to try attending one of these groups even before you quit to see if it is right for you. The support can be very helpful.
  2. Actually circle your quit date on a real calendarand mark off each day leading up to quit day. Do at least one thing each day to prepare in the week leading up to quitting and don't be shy-- announce the date you are going to quit to family, friends and co workers. Make it a real commitment. You will be surprised at the support you get. NB-- the only people who won't support you are smokers. No matter how much you like these people, take note of the fact that they are threatened by your intention to quit and make sure to stay as far away from them as possible for the first few weeks you are off cigarettes. They won't mean to, but they will definitely try to sabotage your good efforts.
  3. On Quit Day, minimize stressby making the first three days without nicotine as quiet and serene as possible. Withdrawal is hard to get through even if you have the easiest of existences. Don't make it harder on yourself. If you can take a few days off from work, do it. Consider taking a sick day or at least one or two vacation days. If you are a mother with small children, try to get some household and babysitting help for a few days and make the arrangements in advance. Withdrawal symptoms for most people are at their worst for the first three days. If you can get through at least five days without a cigarette, you are halfway home. Make those first couple of days as easy on yourself as you can. You have enough to do just to get through each day without a cigarette.
  4. Think about booking a massageor doing some deep breathing or yoga to help you get through the first few days. Don't schedule a business trip or lots of social action for this time. If you are a student, don't make your quit date the week before exams. Also, do not have anyone who smokes anywhere near you if you can possibly manage it. Even the smell of cigarette smoke or the sight of people smoking in a movie can set you off. Be aware and plan ahead.
  5. Do not go near smoke or smokersuntil your cravings have subsided ( that means a few weeks). If you live with smokers, other family members or room mates, require them to smoke outside the house, at least for the next few weeks. Take it as easy as you can. Remember you are dealing with withdrawal. People addicted to alcohol and other drugs detox in hospitals under medical supervision. Nicotine is a serious drug and Detox is a serious business. If you are going to succeed at this cold turkey, you need to give yourself half a chance of getting through withdrawal and that means taking your physical and mental symptoms very very seriously and helping your body and mind adjust to life without nicotine.
  6. Drink plenty of water and fluids and get as much sleep as you can.Your blood sugar is going up and down so you may need to snack more. Do it and feel free to chew gum or suck on sticks for oral satisfaction. Anything other than a cigarette is fine.
  7. Minimize psychological triggers.If you always smoke when you have a cup of coffee, drink tea instead of coffee while you are detoxing. For me the hardest time was after meals so I brushed and flossed my teeth after every meal to try to fight off the cravings( Most cravings last less than 5 minutes) For me talking on my land line was a trigger, but talking on my cell wasn't-- figure out what works for you -- text instead of talking or use a different phone. The principle is the same whatever your trigger.....this is where you need to make a list of your triggers before you quit and set up some alternatives. Trying to do it while you are fighting withdrawal symptoms is a no go for sure.
  8. Walking is a magic bulletfor many things, and it really will help you immeasurably during the first few days away from nicotine. You are going to feel tired, irritable and fuzzy headed and believe it or not, taking a 20 minute walk and doing a little deep breathing will be enormously helpful. Your blood sugar is bouncing all over the place -- walking will help stabilize it. Try to walk in a park or quiet place where you can commune with nature, but failing that a city street or a mall is better than nothing. Just don't pretend that walking through supermarket aisles is the same as walking down a country road.The point is to move your body and quiet your mind. Walking will not only help with your fatigue and irritability, it will help with insomnia and potential weight gain as well.Not sure what the science is, but I found thatwalking cut the cravings, as well.

One Last Thing

Cold turkey is tough—and if you can get through it, congratulations. The first two to three days are the toughest. Most cold-turkey quitters don't last more than 24 hours, but if you can make it through the first week without even one puff, your chances for success increase dramatically... and by the end of three weeks without nicotine, you should be home free.

But if you can't make it by going cold turkey, don't give up. Consider talking with your doctor and using any of a number of things out there designed to help you quit. Nicotine replacement therapy in the form of patches, gum, and lozenges can greatly increase the chance of success in quitting by cutting the impact of withdrawal symptoms. But since NRT involves the use of nicotine, it is, like methadone for heroin addicts, not without its dangers. However, the benefits may well outweigh those dangers.You may also want to consider Chantix or Zyban, two prescription drugs that have helped some people quit. These are options that need to be discussed with your physician.

Whatever you do, please do know that you can quit and you are not alone. Cold turkey is tough but millions of people have successfully quit that way. You can maximize your chances for success by planning ahead and not underestimating the power of your addiction. Most people who still smoke, at least in the Western world, do so because they are hooked, and getting unhooked is not easy.

Cold turkey is just one way to do it. If it works, great—and if not there are many other options. The thing to keep in mind is that you are definitely stronger than nicotine and one way or another you can and will become tobacco-free.

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