How to Deal With Stress and Anger When Quitting Smoking (Lessons Learned)
By far one of the absolute worst things about quitting smoking is all the anger, anxiety, stress and tension that comes when we’re first trying to get rid of the physical and mental addiction to our once-favourite form of poison.
We find ourselves tearing our hair out, being bad tempered, shouting, and in worst-case scenarios even taking it out on friends and loved ones.
In fact, so many of us have used this worst-case scenario as what we believed to be a perfectly logical and rational excuse to keep on smoking.
The idea in our heads goes something like this:
If we quit, there’d be every chance we’d act like assholes to those we love. So you see, we just had to keep smoking to protect our friends and loved ones from the worst parts of ourselves.
Let’s bust that silly little myth right away, shall we?
In my experience, and the experience of other ex-smokers I’ve spoken to, the asshole phase of any quit attempt is just that:
It’s a phase.
It doesn’t last.
Before you know it, you’ll start feeling like yourself again. Better than yourself, in fact, because you’ll be fitter, happier, and healthier.
You know what does last though? The consequences of smoking if you don’t quit.
Lung cancer, heart disease, are those really the kind of things you’re prepared to accept in exchange for keeping the peace with your loved ones?
Let me ask you this:
Do you think your family would rather put up with you acting like an asshole for a very short period of time, or have your life cut short and eventually lose you to some horrible disease?
Not that I’m advocating treating your family and friends badly for the sake of quitting smoking.
When I quit, I had to accept that these feelings -as intense and painful and all-consuming as they were- were an inevitable part of the process, but they were part of MY process. I had to take full responsibility for them.
If I had anything resembling a golden rule for my quit, it was this:
No matter how bad you feel, you are not allowed to take it out on anybody else.
That was easier said than done, but it could, and it can, be done.
Here, I’ll share with you everything I used to help me
deal with anger, stress, anxiety and tension when I first quit smoking.
Don’t Ignore or Avoid Feelings
You’ll notice that so far I’ve talked about ‘dealing’ with anger and stress, not avoiding them or pretending they don’t exist.
Very early on in my journey, I learned that I have to accept that I’m a human being, and that one of the consequences of being human is that I’m susceptible to an entire range of human emotions, conditions, and feelings.
I can be hot, cold, happy, sad, happy, stressed, relaxed, horny, repulsed, bored, and yes, angry.
Some of those things may make me feel better than others, but in and of themselves they are neither good nor bad, they just are.
Anger isn’t bad, it’s just a feeling. Taking my anger out on other people, however, is bad.
So it’s not anger that I need to avoid but taking out my anger on others.
Here’s why that’s important.
Let’s say I tell myself that anger is bad and that because it’s bad, I shouldn’t ever get angry.
Because I’m just an average human, at some point I’m likely to get angry, and when I do, that betrays the one thing I’ve told myself I shouldn’t do.
So now I’m doing something bad.
So now I’m bad.
So now I’m guilty.
So now I’ve failed.
So now f – – it, I might as well smoke a cigarette, because why not, right?
If I’m already a bad persons doing bad things that I’ve told myself I shouldn’t do, why not go all out and light up?
Now I’ve failed at my quit attempt too.
Now I feel worse, so I might as well smoke some more and…
Well, you get the idea, right?
So I don’t tell myself that anger is bad and to be avoided – it’s just a thing, a feeling that I need to process. and deal with appropriately, without taking it out on other people.
Depending on the situation, there’s a couple of ways that I can do that.
Here’s some of my favourites that have helped me immensely.
Pull the Lever
A few years ago, I worked with a counsellor who helped me to control my overthinking by imagining an actual train of thought; a big-ass locomotive hurtling a thousand miles per hour down the track, all of it the embodiment of my own thought process.
I could then imagine myself as the driver of this train, and imagine a huge lever which I could pull to slowwww down and stop that train of thought.
I’ve since used his technique not just for overthinking, but for any occasion where my thoughts or feelings run away and overwhelm me.
If I’m angry, stressed, or tense, I normally see the train emitting sparks as it careens wildly out of control, barely on the tracks.
Then I grab that lever and -calmly as I’m capable of- pull it down. As I see myself pulling these lever down -slowwwwwly- I see the train slowing down, grinding to a halt.
I’m not saying this was an easy concept for me to get to grips with.
It took a bit of practice, but the more I did it, the more it became natural for me to reach for that lever whenever thoughts or emotions ran away from me.
When the train stops, I can effectively step off and put my feet on the ground -grounding- by asking myself a series of questions.
Other people might have their own questions, but these are some of the ones I typically ask myself:
- Am I hot or cold?
- What’s my energy level like? Am I tired? Full of energy?
- What can I see?
- What can I touch?
- What can I smell or taste?
These questions ground me in the present moment, right here, and basically take me out of the cyclone of madness that is my anger.
Don’t get me wrong, the anger, or at least the residual. energy of the anger, is still there, but now I’ve stepped it of it, the anger stops consuming me.
In other words, I am no longer my anger –
My anger is something separate from the core of who I am, and something that I can now properly process.
Why do I need to process this anger instead of just ignoring it?
Because ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.
I’ve found that if I don’t get to the crux of my anger, it’s energy lingers even if I’m temporarily calm. It only then takes one small incident or another cigarette craving for the whole anger to flare up again.
The more it flares up, the harder it gets to pull that lever and deal with later. The harder it gets to deal with, the closer I come to breaking my one golden rule:
No matter how bad you feel, you are not allowed to take it out on anybody else.
So I might as well get to the heart of the problem now before it becomes too much to deal with.
To do that, I ask myself another question:
What Am I Actually Angry About?
About a year after I’d quit smoking, I went through a rough time in which a good friend of mine and two of my grandparents all passed away in quick succession.
At the same time, I suffered a number of financial and career setbacks, so needless to say, I wasn’t in the best of moods.
One night after a long and tiring day, I called into a supermarket to pick up a few groceries and had a serious craving for a vegetable pizza.
There was just one problem:
No vegetable pizzas left.
In the entire supermarket.
It’s hard to tell you just how quickly and severely my emotions took control of me.
Stress boiled over into anger, I was ready to cuss somebody out, throw a few things and just scream at the top of my lungs.
Fortunately, I was able to stop and draw a deep breath, and as I drew breath, I was able to close my mind, visual that runaway train flying down the track, and slow it to a halt by pulling the lever.
I used a few quick grounding questions to get myself back in the present moment rather then in the grip of my anger, and then I asked a couple of extra questions.
- What am I really angry about?
- Am I really that upset about pizza?
- And if I am, is pizza really worth all this energy?
No, of course it isn’t, and of course I wasn’t.
When I have myself a few moments to think, I realised I wasn’t angry about the pizza.
In fact, I wasn’t angry at all, I was just tired, overworked and not where I wanted to be.
I didn’t want to be grocery shopping on a cold, wet, and dark Friday night, I wanted to be home, warm, relaxing.
That helped me to make a decision about what to do next – forget the pizza and go home.
What does any of this have to do with anger and quitting smoking?
To me, everything.
I used the exact same thing when I’d get angry whilst quitting smoking – and it helped me determine whether I was actually angry or just craving a cigarette, and what I should do in either situation.
Let me explain what I mean:
If I ask myself those questions and it turns out that, yes, I am legitimately angry about whatever it is I think I’m angry about, then I can do something about that situation, whether that’s taking action (calling my Internet provider if they’re not delivering what they’ve promised or having a word with my neighbours when they’re being unreasonably noisy late at night) or let it go (walking away from the supermarket when I can’t find my favourite pizza).
If, on the other hand, it turns out that -when I’m really honest with myself- I’m not actually angry but just craving a cigarette, I can do something about that too.
Using the Energy
Anger and cravings can -and usually do- manifest themselves as physical energy.
Often the secret is just determine which one we’re experiencing and do something about it.
When its a craving, there’s a lot you can do.
Sometimes, that might be using the energy as part of a visualisation technique.
When I did this, I could imagine that the physical symptoms of my craving — in this case stress, tension, feeling like I want to punch my fist through a wall- are the nicotine and the addiction physically leaving my body.
I imagined it like some kind of black smoke or ooze physicaly rising out of my skin and drifting into the atmosphere, leaving me cleanier, healthier, and free from my addiction.
Turning those stressful cravings into a positive experience doesn’t make them physically suck any less, but it does maake make sitting with the suckiness more tolerable because you know that when it passes, you’ll be be better than you were before it.
If that doesn’t, the old classics are the best.
Exercise — even if it’s only for a short burst like blasting the crap out of a punch bag — works wonders for absorbing the energy of a craving, as does cycling, swimming, and tennis.
Even taking a walk around the block, or my own personal favourite — a long hot shower — can do miracles for letting that energy disipate and returning to normality.
Going through this time and time again can get tiring, but here’s the good news:
It Gets Better
As I said right at the very start of this article, the anger phase is just that — it’s a phase.
Those intense, hair-pulling, finger-clawing, tear your own skin off cravings that make you want to shout and yell and smash things up don’t last long — and in my experience, after hitting a peak, they taper off to the point that they’re barely noticable.
It gets better, much better, but only if you let it, and only if you remember three simple things:
- Anger and cravings can feel like the same kind of energy
- Ask questions to determine which energy you’re experiencing
- Deal with it appropriately without harming anybody else.