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Using Attitude to Reduce Anxiety
During Nicotine Cessation

John R. Polito

Have you previously tried to break nicotine's grip?   Have you ever stopped to consider that each of your recovery attempts have been different?  It might surprise you to learn that those investing the time to educate themselves often experience far less challenging recoveries than ever before.

Those who learn to handle the possible wild blood sugar swings that often accompany nicotine cessation, who learn why it may take only half as much caffeine in order for their blood-serum caffeine level to be identical to what it was while still actively smoking nicotine, and who take the time to understand and appreciate the different phases associated with the sense of emotional loss are using their intellect to help avoid or minimize many of the symptoms they might otherwise have experienced.  This article focuses on yet another important area, diminishing anxiety by embracing recovery.

Can we make ourselves miserable on purpose?  No doubt about it.  Throughout our lives we've experienced worry, fear, anger and irritability, only to find out later that our worries, fears and anxieties were either totally unnecessary or were over little or nothing at all.  Most often they resulted from procrastination as we failed to take those first baby steps and instead fled into the dependability of our addiction or addictions.

Addiction isn't about intoxication but about feeling normal, safe and temporarily free of stress.  For the nicotine addict it's about returning to that artificial chemical world of "nicotine normal," a strange mix where elevated dopamine output briefly restores that missing "aaahhh" sensation, while elevated levels of adrenaline yet again prepare the body's defenses for fight or flight.  But when it comes to recovery, what was once the mind's conditioned subconscious defense to real or imagined harm, now becomes the greatest obstacle to recovery.

Nicotine's two hour chemical half-life inside the human body creates a constant struggle to remain in that energized zone of comfort.  It's a lifetime battle to avoid the inevitable letdown associated with constantly declining nicotine reserves and the corresponding decline of dopamine output, as the lingering aftermath of the addict's early aaahhh sensation - sensed in the brain's reward pathways within 10 seconds of that first puff - begins to evaporate.

It's a never-ending cycle of nicotine induced adrenaline releases whipping every neuron in the body's central nervous system, with each cigarette, like some tired horse badly in need of a rest.  It's an endless struggle to avoid feeling tired and drained as adrenaline output declines.  It's the struggle to avoid losing the instant energy and alertness that arrived as stored fats were released into the blood while an accelerating heart-rate pumped carbon monoxide, nicotine, additional oxygen and the fats through rapidly constricting blood vessels engaged in preparing for the possibility of blood loss during fight or flight.

Welcome to the addict's world of "nicotine normal," no longer an adventure but a lifetime job.  Although staying addicted is hard work, the inner mind has been conditioned to believe that chemical withdrawal and recovery -- that temporary period of adjustment needed to again become 100% comfortable engaging life as "you" -- is a threat to survival.  Even though the logical, reasoning and dreaming conscious mind sees recovery as the only possible way of ever returning to a true sense of non-chemical normal, the subconscious "nicotine normal" mind has been heavily conditioned by years of feeling the immediate effects of elevated dopamine and adrenaline levels.  It sees nicotine cessation as quitting you, not recovering you.  Incapable of reason or logic, it sees recovery as a threat and will employ fear, anger, anxiety, depression, and pre-conditioned crave episodes in its struggle to get the conscious mind to comply, relapse, and bring new nicotine back into the body.

Instead of reassuring the subconscious mind not to fear returning to the "real" you, many add needless self-induced tensions and anxieties to the recovery experience that at times can make recovery seem overwhelming.  We can make them escalate to the point where we lash out against loved ones and friends, where we want to hit a tree with our bare hand or where we put our head under a pillow and scream at the top of our lungs.  Our crave episodes and thoughts don't cause us to relapse.  If they did then few of earth's more than one billion comfortable ex-smokers would ever have become ex-smokers.  What causes relapse is the layers and layers of anxiety icing that the conscious mind intentionally cakes upon recovery.

Remember when we were first learning to swim and found ourselves in water over our head.  Did you panic?  I did.  If I had been a skilled swimmer would I have panicked?  Of course not.  Here at WhyQuit and Freedom we teach smokers to swim and then lead them into deep water.  Once there, the smoker can panic and risk relapse or remain calm, enjoy the swim, and fully embrace this most amazing experience.  Recovery doesn't need to be nearly as difficult as our instincts are inclined to make it.  In fact, it can be a proud, reassuring and glorious adventure in physical and psychological healing.

Sadly, almost half of all current smokers will never learn how to swim and the toxic feedings associated with their chemical world of "nicotine normal" will end up costing them their lives. Many genuinely believe that time is running out and disaster is about strike. For far too many this gut instinct is correct and bad news is just around the corner.

Others think that plenty of time remains but after repeated failed attempts they still remain a slave to nicotine's subconscious chemical conditioning. Don't panic.  Instead, invest the time needed to become an excellent swimmer.  The more knowledgeable and skilled we become the greater our chances of breaking free and remaining afloat.  Yes, there may be a few big waves along the way but that doesn't mean we should fear their arrival or that we can't relax and do the backstroke until encountered.

As part of our recovery, why not work on reducing self-inflicted stress, worry, anxiety and panic.  In evaluating your thoughts try to be as objective and honest as possible with yourself.  If we repeatedly tell ourselves that this temporary period of adjustment called "recovery" is hard, frightening and painful, won't our anxieties only escalate further as we fuel our subconscious mind's survival instinct to see "nicotine normal" again prevail?  Seeing truth after living a lifetime of denial isn't easy.  Let's look at one quick example shared with me by Professor Phil Michaels at U.S.C. School of Medicine.

"Did you "like" destroying your body, "like" the taste of 4,000 burning chemicals stinging your tissues, "like" being a chemical slave, or "like" interrupting life's special moments in order to go feed your addiction?  The "like" example of addiction denial is grounded in each of us using honest reason to reach a faulty conclusion that often flows like this:  "I do not do things I do not like to do,"  "I smoke lots and lots of cigarettes, " "therefore I must really like smoking."  An honest alternative would be "therefore I must really be addicted to smoking."  Denial comes in many forms including recovery denial.

We can deny that the Law of Addiction applies to us and make believe we somehow have the ability handle one powerful puff of nicotine and not experience full blown relapse.   We can also feed ourselves the big big bite theory that says that the only way to measure success is in terms of staying nicotine-free "forever," instead of focusing on the only time frame that really matters -- complete victory over the next few minutes.  If we keep feeding ourselves massive doses of dishonest or destructive thinking, how long will our conscious rational mind last before abandoning its quest for freedom and joining our emotional subconscious in demanding relapse?  But let's turn back to subject of self-inflicted anxiety that can grow so intense we begin to fixate and dwell denial lies while seriously pondering relapse.

Picture a plugged-in lamp but without a bulb and the switch turned off. Picture yourself intentionally sticking your finger into the bulb socket and leaving it there. Now picture all of your nicotine feeding cues (triggers) -- the times, places, emotions and events during which you customarily smoked nicotine and thereby conditioned your subconscious to expect the arrival of new nicotine -- being wired directly into the lamp's switch.

We know from detailed studies the "average" number of crave episodes experienced during recovery.  Power to the crave lamp will be briefly turned-on a specific number of times each day, with the average being less than 18 minutes on their most challenging day -- recovery day three with 6 craves, each less than three minutes in duration.  Be sure and look at a clock as a recent study found that time distortion is a very real recovery symptom that can make a 2 to 3 minute crave episode feel much longer.  I've prepared the below crave chart from crave coping data presented in a 1998 study published in Research in Nursing and Health.

This chart was developed using data from a study entitled Coping in real time: using Ecological Momentary Assessment techniques to assess coping with the urge to smoke, Res Nurs Health. 1998 Dec;21(6):487-97

With the above chart, please keep in mind that these are just averages and every recovery is different. Some experience no craves at all while others can have twice as many as show above.  Even so, if you were in the extreme with double the average, that's still only 36 minutes of crave episode anxiety on your most challenging day - 36 minutes to freedom, each minute entirely doable!

If you know that you are going to be encountering your crave triggers and cues but you don't know when, what will having your finger in an electrical lamp socket all day do to your nerves? Will it keep you on edge? Will the constant sense of anticipation breed anxiety that has you lashing-out against anyone walking into the room? Will you feel like crying?  Will worry and concern deprive you of concentrating on other things?  Will it wear you down and drain your spirit?

But what if you knew for certain that the shock itself would always be tolerable, that no crave episode would ever harm you, cut you, make you bleed, break bones, make you ill, or kill you, and that the episode itself would not last longer than three minutes?  What if you actually began to believe that meeting, greeting and moving beyond each crave episode was a critical and welcome step toward full, complete and permanent recovery?  Can honesty, certainty, confidence, understanding, planning and attitude make the time and distance between crave episodes more relaxed and their eventual arrival a welcomed event? 

Instead of focusing on any minor anxiety discomfort you may experience during the short period of time a crave episode is actually occurring and the recovery light switch is on, why not work on learning to relax more during the massive amount of time that the switch is actually off?  If we keep feeding ourselves the thought that recovery is hard then we should fully expect our subconscious mind to issue forth the emotions needed to cause the rational you to abandon your quest for freedom.  If we keep telling ourselves this is hard, we should expect it to be hard.

Why feed ourselves failure? Why fear the swim and worry needlessly when some of us are not even in the water yet? Why assist our inner conditioned mind in breeding negative and powerful anxieties? Why allow such thoughts to fester until they begin oozing anxiety's destructive relapse puss?  Instead, chase all negativism from your mind.  Replace it with calmness, safety, joy and the knowledge that no three minute crave episode can force you to ever again suck nicotine into your body.  Replace it with the reassurance that most subconscious crave triggers are re-conditioned or broken after a single encounter.  Fight back with your reason, logic, and dreams that look forward with confidence while knowing that nothing is being left behind, and that nicotine addiction does not define who you are, your life or command your remaining time on earth.

Embrace recovery as your wonderful journey home to experience the rich, deep, and tranquil inner calmness that resided inside your mind before climbing aboard the endless nicotine/dopamine/adrenaline lifetime roller-coaster ride of cycling highs and lows.  See encountering and reconditioning each crave trigger cue for what it truly is - a highly visible sign of true healing and recovery.  Sense the emerging glory that is you and the abundance of oxygen arriving at every living cell in your body.   In times of challenge fill your cup with truth, desire and the reasons that caused you to embark upon this quest for freedom .  See all thoughts of smoking nicotine, that at times may seem to flood the mind, as golden opportunities to shed honest light on each, while sorting through years of conscious denial in which you made excuses for your chemical addiction that built a safe-house based on lies.

How full is your cup?  Do you feel like you've lost a close friend (half empty) or do realize that friends don't slowly kill friends (half full)?  Did you QUIT smoking (half empty) or is this where you really START living (half full)?  Do you fear the arrival of your next crave (half empty) or are you excited by knowing that its arrival brings you one step closer to once again comfortably engaging every aspect of life as "you?"  Will your next crave last forever (falsehood) or three minutes at most (the truth)?  Will chemical withdrawal never end (falsehood) or will its intensity peak within 72 hours and then begin to gradually subside (the truth)?  Do you expect to continue to experience daily "thoughts" of "wanting" to smoke nicotine forever (falsehood) or will your recovery amazingly evolve to a point where you awake each day "expecting" to go your entire day without ever once "wanting" to smoke nicotine? (the truth)?

Do you truly find joy in being addicted to one of the most powerful substances on planet earth or is that just something you convinced yourself of in order to justify your addiction, your next fix, and to avoid the challenge of withdrawal?  Will 5, 10 or even 20 temporary extra pounds actually kill you (if they even happen at all) or have you already read that it takes 100 extra pounds to equal the health risk associated with just one pack a cigarettes a day?

Did you sell yourself on believing that smoking nicotine calmed or relieved stress when in fact it never once solved a single stressful event in your entire addicted life, other than relieving its own absence? Instead, you simply took flight or escape into your addiction in order to replenish rapidly falling blood-serum levels of the alkaloid nicotine that were being neutralized by stress generated body acids.  How much of life went unaddressed by healthy reactions because of endlessly fleeing into our chemical world of nicotine normal?  Name one stressful event that nicotine solved?  Life as an addict is far more difficult than being "you" as the acid-alkaloid interaction adds the anxieties of early chemical withdrawal to every stressful challenge life throws your way.

Are you selling yourself relapse by telling yourself that you're growing weaker by the hour and won't be able to handle the next crave episode (if any), or do you know for certain that the next brief encounter will be less than three minutes, that you can handle each minute, that a crave cannot harm you, and that they are growing fewer and further apart with each passing day?  Are you fueling the subconscious mind's belief that returning to the "real" you is a frightening and fearful thing to do?  Are you breeding and fueling needless anxiety while having little or no memory or recall of the wonderful sense of calmness and lack of addiction chatter that occupied your mind prior to becoming nicotine's slave?

Do you miss destroying more air sacs with each and every puff or are you celebrating the freshness that now kisses healing lungs?  Do you feed your mind romantic visions of purchasing or bumming the nicotine needed for relapse, or the truthful message of just one puff producing defeat, decay, destruction, disease and 50/50 chance of losing roughly 5,000 sunrises?  Do you miss handing-over your hard earned money in order to remain chemically captive, or smile upon discovering the extra funds that your pockets somehow seem to produce?

Do you miss the lingering cloud of toxic smoke containing 44 known carcinogens, more than 500 gases, and 3,500 + chemical particles, or do you delight in the fact that oils upon your face again belong to you?  Is your world saddened by not being able to crush an endless chain of hot chemically laden cigarette butts and pour mountains of butts from carcinogen rich ashtrays, or are you marveling in your new ash-free world that's clean, bright and refreshing?  Is your cup half empty or is it half full?  Our subconscious is listening and we are what we think - attitude is everything.

None of us are stronger than nicotine but then we don't have to be as nicotine is just a chemical and has an intelligence quotient (IQ) of zero.  Knowledge is power!  Don't be afraid of turning on the light.  Embracing recovery is embracing "you!"  Baby steps.  The next few minutes are all that matter and each is entirely doable!  There are lots of lessons to learn here at WhyQuit and Freedom but only one passing grade - no nicotine today - Never Take Another Puff!

"TRYING to quit" is an uncommitted declaration of leaving something behind.
Tell yourself recovery is HARD and unless you're lying it will be.
Believe your craves to be INTENSE and intense will be the ride.
Ponder excuses for a FIX and you'll eventually get to use them.
If you think you might RELAPSE, then relapse you just might.
If you keep telling yourself you will FAIL, then chances are you will.
If you WANT to be a ex-smoker, your mind has yet to heal.

Allow honest DREAMS to fuel recovery and freedom you shall find.
View this challenge as WONDERFUL and fulfillment will arrive.
See the GLORY of today, then glory it will be!
Praise the HEALING of your body and set your spirit free.
Inhale the JOYS of today, feel the spender of the journey.
Yet be TRUTHFUL of the past, to protect the here and now.
BELIEVE yourself a ex-smoker, an ex-smoker you shall see.
NEVER take another puff and freedom it will be!

Breathe deep, hug hard, live long

John R. Polito

© WhyQuit.Com 2000


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Format updated July 24, 2018 by John R. Polito