Surviving Without Smoke: Month 1

You just quit smoking. Literally. Five minutes ago, you put out your last cigarette.

Now what?

How do you get through the next few hours and days, which will be among the toughest in your journey to becoming an ex-smoker? You need practical strategies to help you survive the cravings and nicotine withdrawal, and help you break the psychological addiction to cigarettes.

What Happens When You Stop

After you quit smoking, a lot of good things happen to your body pretty quickly. Within 20 minutes, your heart rate and blood pressure go down. In 12 hours, the carbon monoxide levels in your body go back to normal. And within a couple of weeks, your circulation improves and you’re not coughing or wheezing as often.

But some pretty unpleasant things happen right away, too. The symptoms of nicotine withdrawal include:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Headache
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Hunger

They kick in fast. Research shows that the average smoker starts to feel the symptoms of withdrawal within an hour of putting out their last cigarette. Feelings of anxiety, sadness, and trouble concentrating can appear within the first 3 hours.

It’s intense but short, though it might not feel that way at the time. Nicotine withdrawal symptoms usually peak within the first 3 days of quitting, and last for about 2 weeks.

If you make it through those first weeks, it gets a little easier. What helps?

Be Prepared

You should start to make plans before you quit. During the week before your “quit day," make the following preparations:

List all the reasons you want to kick the habit. Save them on your phone. Print them out on index cards and stash them where you used to put your cigarettes — in your purse, in your desk drawer, on your nightstand.

Pay attention to when you smoke, where, and with whom. Then make plans for what you can do instead. Do you usually have a cigarette with a cup of coffee in the morning? Do you take a “smoke break” mid-morning with a co-worker? Think of alternatives that will keep your mind and body occupied.

Pick a good quit day. Don’t choose a day that’s in the middle of your most intense month at work, or right before finals, or while a loved one is seriously ill.

After You Quit

So you’ve made your preparations, you’ve thrown away your packs, and you’ve smoked your last cigarette. Now it’s time to act like an ex-smoker. What next?

First, you need to learn to delay the urge. You’ll feel it almost right away. Until the urge fades:

  • Take 10 deep breaths, walk to the sink, pour yourself a glass of ice water, and drink it slowly.
  • Fix a healthy snack. Something that makes your breath and teeth feel fresh is great, such as carrot sticks or a citrus fruit. Or suck on a peppermint.
  • Keep a book with you on a subject you want to learn about. When you feel like you want to smoke, read a few pages while making notes or highlighting passages. Your mind and your hands will be busy.
  • Take out your list of reasons why you’re no longer a smoker and read it to yourself. Out loud if you have to.
  • Call or text a friend or a family member who supports your efforts to quit smoking. You don’t have to talk to them about smoking or quitting. Just hold the phone in your hand instead of a cigarette, and talk about sports, the weather, or your weekend plans until the craving passes.
  • Download a quit smoking app that helps you delay your urges. Try Quit It Lite, which tracks how long you’ve been smoke-free and shows you the money you’ve saved. Next time you want a cigarette, check out your riches instead.

Avoid Temptation

Don’t put yourself in situations that will raise the pressure to smoke. For example:

For a few weeks, don’t go out with friends who smoke. You can still be friends with them. But tell them you’re taking a break while you’re in the early, tough days of quitting and will be back when you’re feeling stronger.

Change your habits. If sitting outside your favorite coffee shop with your morning coffee and a cigarette is your old routine, you might find it almost impossible not to light up there. Instead, have tea or juice or go inside, where smoking is not allowed.

Many people associate alcohol with having a cigarette, so you might want to stay away from happy hour for a few weeks.

Reward Yourself

Give yourself small rewards for every single day you make it through the first 2 weeks, and bigger ones at the end of week 1 and week 2.

Small rewards might include:

  • A new magazine
  • A dozen golf balls
  • New earrings
  • New lipstick or nail polish

Bigger rewards:

  • A nice dinner out
  • Tickets to a sports event or concert
  • An evening at the movies or theater
  • A massage or facial
  • A weekend away

When You’re Stressed

Many people smoke when they feel anxious, stressed, or depressed. Now that you don’t smoke, how will you handle those feelings?

A smoker will think, “I need a cigarette!” But you’re not a smoker anymore. So instead of grabbing a cigarette, argue with yourself. Be your own devil’s advocate and talk back to your irrational thoughts. Keep it up until you no longer feel like you need to smoke. Bit by bit, you’ll put it in the past.


  1. Coral Arvon, PhD, behavioral health specialist, Pritikin Longevity Center, Miami.
  2. American Cancer Society.
  3. National Cancer Institute.
  4. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
  5. Hendricks, P. Psychopharmacology, 2006; vol. 187: pp 385-396.

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