Why the First Year of Smoking Cessation Is So Important

First year of quitting smoking is critical
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As much as we'd all like to quit smoking and be free of nicotine addiction within a few weeks, it just doesn't work that way. It is possible to change the relationship we had with cigarettes and know that we'll never smoke again soon after quitting, but we still have to do the work of breaking down the years of habit we've built up around nicotine addiction. The only way out is through.

Most of us spent decades smoking and have developed hundreds (if not thousands) of links between tobacco and everything in our lives, from the smallest to the biggest. We sure feel it early on in cessation too, when every thought and action reminds us of smoking. We wonder if we'll ever truly be free of tobacco because it feels like that pull to feed the addiction will never go away.

Take heart. The ties that bind us can absolutely be broken...permanently. It takes some time, but not all that much when you think about how many years most of us spent smoking.

A Year of Firsts

I always tell folks to devote the entire first year to healing from nicotine addiction. All of it. Does that mean you'll be miserable for a whole year? No, but it does mean that it takes that long to move through the majority of activities and events in our daily lives that trigger thoughts of smoking.

Some smoking triggers will let go easily and some will be tenacious, but can all be reprogrammed with time and practice. 

So, what are we talking about when we refer to firsts? Just about everything. There is the first long drive or plane ride without smoking. The first smoke-free vacation. The first presentation, meeting or performance without smoking. The first argument managed without a cigarette, and the first smoke-free day of yard work without smoke breaks. From daily living to seasonal events, we have to go through those firsts to get through them.

The Seasons of the First Smoke-Free Year

Maneuvering through year one also involves dealing with triggers that are related to specific seasons and the events (and emotions) that are tied to them. Think Thanksgiving or the annual office holiday party. Triggers can surprise us when we participate in hobbies or activities that are seasonal too, like gardening or skiing. Even doing the annual taxes can be thought of as seasonal and produce triggers to smoke.

I was 8 months into cessation when I experienced a seasonal craving. It was my first smoke-free summer and while painting a room for the first time since quitting, I was surprised to find that all I could think about was lighting up every time I took a break. It was uncomfortable, in part because it had been months since I'd had a craving to smoke, but also because the urge to smoke was strong. It scared me a little - I felt blindsided. Once I got through that first day of painting smoke-free though, that particular trigger was cleared and never returned.

And that is how it works: we have to practice smoke-free life in order to change those ingrained associations. We can't rewire the circuitry until the trigger presents itself. Once it does and we deal with it, the trigger either melts away or weakens, depending on the strength of the particular emotion/association.

Going Through it to Get Through it

Once we make our way through the first calendar year of smoking cessation, 99 percent of the associations we've built up over the years will have been faced down and restructured into healthier coping mechanisms.

There may be a trigger or two that still rears its head every once in a while or the very occasional trigger that comes at some point for all of us when we suffer a loss or other life-changing event. For the most part, though, a year is enough to retrain the links to tobacco we spent so much time setting in place. We'll have developed the mental muscle to cope with the rare ones we haven't yet experienced as well.​

Not a bad deal, when you think about it. With a healthy mindset and the willingness to heal the habits that are associated with smoking, a year is about all that's needed to set a foundation that will comfortably support you for the rest of your smoke-free life. Spend some time reading the one-year smoke-free milestone accounts here. You'll quickly see that the majority of them have a common theme of gratitude for the freedom from addiction they now enjoy. While many will tell you it's hard work, none of them ever say it's not worth it. 

Keep in mind that we reach that one year mark by living our smoke-free lives just one day at a time. If you are early in your quit program and looking that far ahead is too intimidating, don't do it. Just know that healing from nicotine addiction takes time. Relax into your quit and vow to take each smoke-free day as it comes. It will serve you well.

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