The Psychology of a Smoking Relapse

Nicotine addiction is the basis for a lot of false beliefs over the years. We learn to think of our cigarettes as a necessity that affects our ability to function in the world.  We think they help us wake up, calm down, digest food, occupy us when we're bored, etc., when the reality is that we are feeding a physical need for nicotine and relating it to whatever is going on at the moment for us emotionally.  It's negative psychology of the worst kind, and every smoker has built up hundreds, if not thousands of these associations over the years.


Don't Let Junkie Thinking Outsmart You

Man thinking

Rob Lewine / Image Source / Getty Images

When we quit, it's critical to recognize and defeat the faulty thought patterns that we have accepted as truth for so long, because they will be shouting for attention at every turn.  It's called junkie thinking and is part of nicotine withdrawal.

Learn how to hear the negative psychology your addicted mind is supplying and correct thoughts that don't serve you before they can take control.  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 curve balls.




PhotoAlto / Eric Audras / Getty Images

"Joe gets to smoke and I can't!"
Hold on. Joe doesn't get to smoke; Joe needs to smoke because he's addicted to nicotine. If you could get inside Joe's head, you'd find out he spends a lot of time wishing he could quit smoking ... just like you did before you quit.

Statistics tell us that upwards of 70 percent of smokers want to quit, so don't feel sorry for yourself. 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 we spent years teaching ourselves that it was, and it takes time to undo those misconceptions. What you think you are missing is actually a toxic cocktail that kills hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. alone every year. It's not a buddy or a friend. 

Remember that, and remember that the discomfort you're feeling right now will pass. Nicotine withdrawal is a temporary condition. Better days are ahead.



Upset man leaning on wall

altrendo images / Stockbyte / Getty Images

"I'm too weak to quit smoking. I've always failed in the past, so why bother trying? I'll just go back to smoking in the end."

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 like the one above, correct it immediately. And don't worry if you don't believe what you're telling yourself.

So, for example, to correct the negative statement above, you could say something like, 

"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

Young couple arguing in street

SKA / Getty Images 

"It's my friend's fault I can't quit. If she'd stop smoking like a chimney, I could!"

When we hinge our success on the actions of another, we effectively take our power to change and throw it out the window.

However, when we accept responsibility for our own actions, we also give ourselves the means to move toward solutions that will help us 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 our actions puts us on the fast track to healing and self-empowerment.



Young adult female smoking

PhotoAlto / Frederic Cirou / Getty Images

"Quitting isn't so hard. I think I've got this thing licked and can handle smoking just one cigarette tonight. I'll get right back to my quit program tomorrow."
Otherwise known as romancing the cigarette, or junkie thinking, this kind of thought pattern gets us into hot water fast. Time away from smoking can blur the edges of the reasons we had for putting those cigarettes down in the first place. We forget the chronic cough and lose touch with the racing heart and breathlessness that came from climbing a flight of stairs.

As we gather a head of steam and start logging smoke-free time, it's easy to fall into thinking that we have control over our addiction. Make no mistake about it, though; as nicotine addicts, we will always be susceptible to dependence once again if we introduce nicotine back into our systems.

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. as your motto.



Man waiting under clock

Leland Bobbe / The Image Bank / Getty Images

"I quit smoking a month ago and I'm still craving cigarettes! I think I'm going to miss smoking forever."

I quit smoking three times before I finally hit on the right mix of determination, education, and support to quit smoking for good. I can remember thinking that if I could just quit for two weeks, I'd be through the worst of it and would do with it.​

Knowing what I know now, I realize how faulty this thinking was and how I set myself up for relapse by putting rigid expectations on how my quit program should go ahead of time. And, when my recovery didn't progress as quickly as I'd expected, I got discouraged and gave up.

The fact is, 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 set its hooks in us over a period of years. 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. 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 self. You'll be rewarded a thousand times over for your efforts.

Was this page helpful?