The Psychology of a Smoking Relapse

Nicotine addiction is the basis for a lot of false beliefs, justifications, and maladaptive behaviors. People who are addicted to nicotine often believe that cigarettes are necessary for them to function in everyday life. It's true that when you are dependent upon a substance like nicotine, you need more and more of that substance to stave off the symptoms of withdrawal that start the moment you've finished a cigarette. But it's also true that you can break that cycle.

It's common to feel as though you need cigarettes throughout your day—to help you wake up, calm down, digest food, occupy yourself when you're bored—but in reality, you can live healthfully and happily smoke-free. When you quit smoking, it's critical to recognize and defeat the faulty thought patterns that justify smoking. It takes vigilance and some practice, but maneuvering through the challenges that come with early smoking cessation is something you can do.  ​

The good news: This phase of smoking cessation is temporary. Gain some skill now in defeating the negative self-talk that may come, and your brain will eventually take note and stop sending you curveballs.

Symptoms of nicotine withdrawal can include depressed mood, anxiety, irritability, anger, and frustration. It's very common to feel the urge to smoke again to alleviate these symptoms, but remember they will pass.



Quitting is hard. It can be easy to feel as though you're giving up something pleasurable while others get to continue to "enjoy" it. Feelings of self-pity are common when quitting cigarettes—especially when you see others around you who are still smoking.

In 2015, nearly 70% of smokers reported wanting to quit. Rather than getting stuck in self-pity, be proud that you're taking steps to get nicotine addiction out of your life once and for all.

Smoking isn't a prize or a reward, but addiction tricks the brain into thinking it is, and it takes time to undo those associations. Remember that the discomfort you're feeling right now will pass. Nicotine withdrawal is a temporary condition. Better days are ahead.



We are always our own worst critics. We tell ourselves we can't and set the stage for failure before we have a chance to get started.

Pay close attention to the self-defeating thoughts that are running along in the background of your mind. When you hear a thought that doesn't serve you, such as telling yourself you're bound to fail or aren't strong enough to quit, correct it immediately. And don't worry if you don't fully believe what you're telling yourself.

For example, instead of thinking you're too weak to quit, you could say something such as, "Nicotine addiction is why I feel weak in my resolve. I know that once I get through the recovery process, I won't be plagued with smoking thoughts anymore. I'm not weak—I'm addicted, and that can be changed."

Your subconscious mind will pick up the positive mental cue and use it to help move you along in the right direction. Soon enough, you'll be feeling stronger and telling yourself that you can rather than you can't.


Blaming Others

It might be tempting to pass blame onto others as you try to quit smoking. For example, if you spend a good amount of time around someone else who smokes, you may be tempted to blame the challenges you're facing on their continuing to smoke.

But when you hinge your success on the actions of another, you effectively take your power to change and throw it out the window. When you accept responsibility for your own actions, however, you give yourself the means to move toward solutions that will help you begin the process of recovery.

If you find yourself stuck in this kind of mentality, take charge and shoulder the burden of the choices you've made. While it may be hard to face at first, taking responsibility for your actions puts you on the fast track to healing and self-empowerment.



Have you ever thought you could handle smoking just one cigarette and then get right back on track to quit the next day? Otherwise known as romancing the cigarette, this kind of thought pattern can be detrimental to your progress.

Time away from smoking can blur the edges of the reasons you had for putting those cigarettes down in the first place. You can forget the chronic cough and lose touch with the racing heart and breathlessness that came from climbing a flight of stairs.

As you start logging smoke-free time, it's easy to fall into thinking that you have control over your addiction. Make no mistake about it, though: As someone addicted to nicotine, you'll always be susceptible to dependence if you introduce it back into your system.

The only way to maintain control for the long haul is to have a zero-tolerance policy with nicotine. Remember that there is no such thing as just one cigarette, and adopt N.O.P.E. (Not One Puff Ever) as your motto.



Your smoke-free journey is unique to you and takes as long as it takes. Not a minute more or less.

Quitting tobacco is a process of gradual release from an addiction that has taken hold over time. Don't expect to be over it in a week or two, and don't gauge your success by how others have done when they quit smoking. Be patient with yourself and use time as a quit buddy. Don't get discouraged if you're still craving cigarettes.

Think of the work you're doing to quit smoking as the foundation of a new smoke-free home you're building. Each smoke-free day you complete represents a block of that foundation. Lay each block down as carefully as you can, apply the mortar, and then be patient enough to give it the time it needs to dry. Before you know it, you'll have a strong base that will fully support your smoke-free life.

Take your time and practice patience, primarily with yourself. You'll be rewarded a thousand times over for your efforts.

5 Sources
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. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tips for quitting.

  2. McLaughlin I, Dani JA, De Biasi M. Nicotine withdrawal. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2015;24:99-123. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-13482-6_4

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Take steps to quit.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Quitting smoking among adults — United States, 2000 - 2015.

  5. Quit notes.

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