Have you tired to stop smoking and found you can’t? Are you getting fed up with people saying “why don’t you just quit?” or have you said to yourself “why can’t I just stop?” So why is it so hard to just….STOP?
The reasons go beyond ‘will power’ and ‘good will’…..you have to look a little deeper than that? Don’t worry, I’m not talking Freud deeper, I’m talking about ‘your body’ deeper and what’s happening inside your brain.
Firstly, it’s not your fault if you find you can’t just stop – there is a lot more going on than you might think when you make the decision to stop smoking. So give yourself a break. I have many clients come to see me because they want to stop smoking and one thing I’ve noticed is how many give themselves quite a hard time because they can’t seem to stop on their own. This is why.
You’re being Hijacked….
We all have ‘natural survival systems’ inside us, these systems regulates the things which are necessary for life. They give us the motivation to eat, drink….procreate (you get the idea!). Everything that is essential for life – for example; that little voice or feeling you get when you are hungry or thirsty, that’s your ‘natural survival system’ doing its job. We don’t have to remember to eat, something tells us we are hungry. The chemical messenger Dopamine is responsible for this motivation we get to eat. Once we’ve eaten, another chemical messenger is released to put the breaks on the motivation, so we stop eating. The result being; we feel good – due to the high amount of chemical messengers in our brains. Dopamine isn’t only involved in our motivation to eat, many things can trigger the release of Dopamine to motivate us to do something – motivate us to do the things to keep us alive.
These survival systems are also involved in our desire to push ourselves, so we achieve something and it feels great, then it just becomes normal. Our survival system keeps us motivated to keep pushing ourselves to seek out the things we need to live, learn and grow – things that are also essential for life and our survival.
The Nicotine found in cigarettes, hijacks these natural survival systems – nicotine makes you believe, on an unconscious level, it’s something that is also essential for life, like eating. This is one reason why it can be so hard to stop smoking.
As you can imagine, it’s not as simple as this – our bodies are extremely complex but it gives you a general idea of what’s going on inside you and why it’s not your fault if you are finding it hard to stop smoking. Too put it bluntly, your unconscious can believe nicotine is essential for your survival because your survival system has been hijacked, so your motivation to smoke can be quite a powerful one because your unconscious believes it’s vital for your survival.
What Have Dogs Got to do with it?
Our brains also have a mechanism to predict the availability of things we need by laying down memories of what was around us at the time we got something that was essential for life – it does this by releasing another chemical messenger called Glutamate. This creates a cue or trigger. So the next time we are around that same cue or trigger, it’s starts the motivation process by releasing dopamine, giving you the urge to seek the thing essential for life associated with that cue or trigger.
Have you heard of Pavlov’s dogs? Over a century ago, a Russian physiologist called Ivan Pavlov made a discovery – he observed how over time the dogs he was working with would salivate when they heard the footsteps of the technicians coming down the corridor with their food, before the food was even in sight. This got him thinking so he did an experiment – he rang a bell every time the dogs were fed. So he paired a motivationally significant stimulus i.e the dogs food, with an unrelated signal i.e a bell. He found after repeatedly pairing the dogs food with the sound of the bell, the dogs would just salivate to the sound of the bell – a conditioned response. This is known as classical conditioning. It means a previously neutral stimulus like a bell can evoke a response or a certain behaviour by continuously pairing it with motivational significant stimulus or put more simply, two unrelated things happening close together in time, can lead to an unconscious learned associated.
Dopamine, as mentioned above, the chemical messenger responsible for motivation, also facilitates this type of classical conditioning.
So what does this have to do with smoking?
This paring of 2 unrelated things happening does not only happen in dogs, but in us too. For the dogs, the bell was a trigger for them to start salivating. If you smoke, the desire to smoke can be triggered by associations paired with things from your environment, like the pub or having a coffee? Have a think, where do you always get that urge to light a cigarette? With a certain friend, location…time of day, when you pick up the phone and talk to certain people?
The desire to smoke can also be triggered the same way by our emotions, by pairing certain emotions with a cigarette, creating a learned association. For some people, they started to smoke back in their teens, so they felt part of the crowd or felt like they belonged, to feel safe – this would give you a good feeling, but the good feeling is pared with the cigarettes and not who you are with.
Can these Triggers or Associations be undone?
So a trigger for smoking is something which you have learnt over time by unconsciously pairing smoking with something else. The good news is, hypnotherapy can be used to break these unconscious associations, which means you would no longer get the urge to smoke in your trigger environments or emotions because the dopamine would no longer be released in those moments so therefore you wouldn’t get the urge to smoke.
Why Do the Cravings Get Worse?
There is one more trigger which explains why craving for a cigarette can increase over time and it has nothing to do with dogs and ringing bells. We have an internal ‘alarm’ system which is constantly checking everything is as it should be – it regularly checks our blood stream to make sure all ‘levels’ of substances are okay. For smokers, ‘normal’ levels mean having a certain amount of nicotine in your blood stream. So, when you haven’t had a cigarette in a while or you decide to stop smoking, the nicotine in your blood stream starts to get lower and lower. This is picked up by your internal ‘alarm’ system and ‘alarm bells’ start ringing; so dopamine is released giving you the urge to have a cigarette so the nicotine levels in your blood can return to ‘normal’. If you have decided to stop smoking, your conscious is saying that you don’t want a cigarette, your unconscious, remember, believes smoking is essential for life. So more and more dopamine is released increasing your urge to have a cigarette.
So, how does it get resolved? On one hand you have the conscious, rational mind saying you no longer smoke and on the other hand, the unconscious giving out warning signals saying it’s essential for life. So in steps the part of your brain responsible for resolving conflict and decision making; the anterior cingulate cortex. It doesn’t know the answer so it gets the memory involved – it looks for clues in our memory’s which will help resolve the conflict. If the memory comes back with reminders of how good smoking made you feel or how it “calmed” you down when stressed – the more the memory reinforces that smoking is a good thing to do, the more dopamine that’s released and the cravings get irresistible. The conscious gives in and reaches for a cigarette.
THE GOOD NEWS…..
The good news is, our memories are not entirely accurate, they are ‘rose tinted’. This means, using Cognitive hypnotherapy, this cycle can be broken so dopamine isn’t released in such high quantities so allowing the rational, conscious mind (that doesn’t want to smoke) to win because the cravings will be much less or not even there.
Would You Like to Stop Smoking?
This is all a very simplified version of whats happening in your body, our body’s are extremely complex with numerous systems and parts of the brain involved. You don’t even need to understand any of it to help you stop smoking, just know it’s not your fault if you want to stop smoking but you find it very difficult. Whats going on is biology and not lack of will power – but remember to not underestimate the role will power plays in your decision to stop. You still have a choice which path you choose to take – to smoke or not to smoke.