Why Do People Relapse after Years of Not Smoking?

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A recent ex-smoker asks:

I have a nagging fear that I can't seem to shake. I am stable in my quit right now, but the addict in me is telling me that 5,6,7 or 10 years from now I'm just going to pick up the habit again so what's the point of celebrating the fact that I'm a non-smoker now? Am I doomed to fail eventually? I know people who have started smoking again after YEARS of abstaining. It scares me.


Most of us know someone who had a smoking relapse years after quitting. On the surface, it is frightening for those who are working hard to beat nicotine addiction. On the surface, it feels like smoking is a nasty monster that follows us forever, waiting to pounce when we're least suspecting. That's not how it works though. Relapse never happens out of the blue, even though people often think it does.

The key to lasting freedom from this addiction lies in changing your relationship to smoking. If you quit smoking by sheer will power, believing somewhere in the back of your mind that you're making a sacrifice by doing so, you're setting the stage for an eventual relapse.  

Emotionally, we think we're giving up something good when we think of making a sacrifice.  That's the message your brain receives, and it's not an accurate or healthy one. You might be able to abstain for years and years, but if you believe the sacrifice lie, you'll find yourself missing smoking and thinking of it as a fix when times of stress or other potential triggers come along.

However, if you do the work necessary to change how you think about your smoking addiction, you'll find your freedom, and you won't have to struggle to maintain it.

That's all fine and well you're probably saying, but how to make that change?

Be A Sponge

All smokers know that smoking is bad. We all know that it causes emphysema, lung cancer, and a thousand other diseases.

In order to continue smoking in the face of this harsh reality, we all had ways of compartmentalizing our habit. Otherwise, smoking would have caused so much fear and discomfort, we wouldn't have been able to do continue doing it.

We'd tell ourselves we had years before we needed to worry. We'd rationalize that smoking light cigarettes was better for our health. We'd say that smoking disease happens to other people, not us. We had a hundred ways to rationalize smoking.

Eventually though, the smokescreen wears so thin that the scales tip in the other direction. This is usually when people decide to do the necessary work to quit. Once that happens, it's time to take a good look at all of the issues surrounding smoking. Learning everything you can about the dangers as well as what to expect when you quit will go a long way toward helping you start to make that permanent change of attitude that we're talking about.

Education is an important part of the process that will release you from this killer of an addiction. Be a sponge and soak up everything you can find about smoking/quitting.

Attitude Adjustment

A good attitude helps us more than a bad attitude. There's more to it though than just positive thinking.

Truly changing your attitude when it comes to recovery from nicotine addiction involves retraining how you think. For most of us, it involves conscious effort and plenty of practice.

Begin by paying close attention to the literally thousands of thoughts floating through your mind on a daily basis. Capture negative thoughts as they arise and change or "retrain" them on the spot. You may not believe what you're telling yourself at first, but do it anyway. One of the lovely things about the way our minds work is that we tend to believe what we tell ourselves. Take advantage of that and feed yourself a steady diet of accurate information about the realities of smoking.

Don't romanticize cigarettes. They don't offer you anything of value.

So, for instance, if you think something like:
I may as well give up. I've been smoke free for months now and I still miss smoking every now and then. I'll never be free of cigarettes.

Tell yourself:

I need to be patient with myself. I smoked for a long time and it reprogramming the hundreds associations to smoking I've built up doesn't happen overnight. I know that cravings are signs of healing.

Or, if you think:

Smoking made life more enjoyable. It relaxed me and helped me cope with stress.

Tell yourself:

Smoking was slowly killing me. Addiction to nicotine didn't really help with stress - it actually created most of the anxiety I felt. Smoking only relieved the physical withdrawal I experienced when the nicotine level in my bloodstream dropped. Once I've gotten through recovery, I'll be able to cope so much better without smoking than I ever did with it.

Changing the way we think isn't a miracle that just happens to us. We do the work to make the changes by paying attention to errant thoughts and making appropriate adjustments. If you notice your attitude is making a shift for the worse, this is the way to pull it back into line.

Be patient with yourself and allow for the time it takes to heal from this addiction. As you make your way through the first year, you will have experienced most of the situations in regular everyday life that trigger thoughts of smoking. Once faced, these triggers lose power. This all takes time and practice.

You are in the driver's seat with your quit program. Our actions are always within our control. Do the work to change your relationship with smoking and you will find the release from the need to smoke that you want so badly.