How to Recover From a Smoking Relapse

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A smoking relapse can happen to anyone. You may have gone a few months without a cigarette and were feeling good about it. Then, for some unknown reason, you ask a friend for a smoke and before you know it, you're smoking. This may not lead to a habit, but many people in this situation find that they do return to smoking at least a few cigarettes a day.

If this has happened to you, know that you are not alone. Many people have gone down this same road. One study that followed ex-smokers for over 20 years found that 39% relapsed at some point. Of those people, 69.5% had successfully quit again by the end of the study.

While lighting that first cigarette can feel like it happened by chance, it's rarely that simple. The good news is that you can get back on track by reexamining your motivations to be an ex-smoker.

Recognize Junkie Thinking

The seeds of a smoking relapse are often planted days or even weeks before the actual event occurs. The shift in thinking might start with something as simple as passing a stranger sitting on a park bench who is "relaxing" with a cigarette. You might think, "He gets to smoke, but I can't because I quit."

Feelings of deprivation and sacrifice are part of junkie thinking. These are enough to set the stage for a slip.

If left unchecked, those thoughts can fester and will grow over time until you're feeling sorry for yourself and obsessing about smoking. It's all about perception. If you tell yourself that smoking has value and you're making a big sacrifice by quitting, you'll probably find yourself smoking again eventually.

Romancing the Cigarette

Once you put some distance between yourself and that last cigarette, the edges of your quit can get a little fuzzy. It's easy to forget why you originally thought it was so important to stop smoking.

Maybe that chronic cough is gone, or you think that quitting hasn't as hard as you thought it would be. You tell yourself that you could go back to smoking for a little while and then stop again—it's really no big deal.

Like an unhealthy relationship you had to leave behind, it's easy to remember the "good times" and not the bad. We've all done it. We think about how nice it was to relax on the deck with a smoke after a big dinner.

What we conveniently forget is all of the other cigarettes that were not so enjoyable—the ones that left us with a headache, feeling tired, and out of breath.

While you may have the nicotine out of your system, the habit of smoking holds on a lot longer. If junkie thinking takes hold, your mind may come up with some creative justifications to allow just one cigarette. They're all lies, of course, but they can be seductive. Most of us have lost at least one quit attempt to such faulty thinking.

Pay close attention to the background noise in your mind and try to correct thoughts of smoking as they come along. Don't allow them to grow into an urge to smoke that you can't control. Nip smoking thoughts in the bud and protect your quit.

Recovering From a Relapse

If you've smoked one cigarette (or more), junkie thinking has gotten its way. It will continue to influence you if you let it. In order to preserve your quit program and avoid a long-term smoking relapse, stop smoking right away.

Get your mind working for you again instead of against you.

You will likely to rationalize why you should put off quitting but don't listen to the lies. Get right back up on that horse and start riding again. Try these suggestions to get yourself back on track.

Make a List of Reasons

Write out a list of reasons for quitting. If you've done this before, get your list out and read it over, then add to it. Carry it with you and refer to it when you’re feeling unsteady. Those reasons are no less true today than they were when you first quit smoking. Bring them back into focus and they'll help you get your priorities in order.

Educate Yourself

Make a point to educate yourself about smoking and smoking cessation. Read everything you can about what smoking does to your health. Face the dangers of smoking straight on. It's a great way to build resolve.

Seek Support

Whether it is in-person or online, get support from others. You cannot do this alone. You need people to hold you accountable and help you when you feel tempted. Built a support network that is committed to helping you quit.

Apply Yourself

Don't worry about the fact that you slipped; it happens and is in the past. Don't worry about never smoking again, either. Just think about today, and doing the best you can with it. You can stay smoke-free just for today, can't you? That's really all you need to do.

Your quit program will be much easier to maintain if you follow this rule; don't overwhelm yourself by projecting forward or back. Your point of power is in the here and now.

You can't change what happened yesterday and the best way to influence your future is by doing a good job with today. Keep things simple and in the present tense.

Accept Yourself

We're all human and make mistakes. You slipped and smoked, but it doesn't mean you're a failure. Learn from what went wrong and make corrections to avoid the same problem in the future.

Be Kind and Patient

Relax and take your quit as it comes. You'll have good days and bad days, but over time the good will outweigh the bad. Pamper yourself a little and don't expect too much too soon. Slow and steady wins the race every time. This race is one that will reward you with improved health, confidence, and quality of life overall.

A Word From Verywell

Relapse is not uncommon among people trying to quit smoking. It may occur within the first weeks or months, even years, after your quit date. Try not to take it too hard and refocus your efforts instead. With patience and diligence, you can get past this hurdle and be smoke-free again.

1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Caraballo RS, Kruger J, Asman K, et al. Relapse among cigarette smokers: the CARDIA longitudinal study - 1985-2011. Addict Behav. 2014;39(1):101-6. doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2013.08.030

Additional Reading

By Terry Martin
Terry Martin quit smoking after 26 years and is now an advocate for those seeking freedom from nicotine addiction.