Behavior Modification

Techniques to Quit Smoking by Making Peace With Your Emotions

Addiction is a coping mechanism we use to ease our pain—but you can learn better ways to deal

Joana Reis
Dec 18, 2019 · 13 min read
Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

When I was 17, my father was dying from throat cancer. He knew he was sick, but he hid his sickness from my mother and I. When we finally found out, it was too late and we lost him in just two weeks after he laid down in that hospital bed. He used to smoke almost two packs of cigarettes a day.

My world turned upside down. Not only did my dad apparently want to die, but my mom was not by my side in a moment of my life when I desperately needed her.

Shortly after that, I started smoking cigarettes, obsessively. It was always between one to two packs a day. There were moments in my smoking career when my body was so intoxicated with nicotine that I would throw up. Even when that happened, I would light another cigarette.

Yes, I tried many ways to quit smoking: nicotine patches, electroshocks in my ears (a complete scam), nicotine gum, support groups, e-cigarettes, and hypnosis. I even walked the streets with a q-tip in between my two fingers to hold to my lips and pretend it was a replacement cigarette. None of that worked for me.

I honestly couldn’t understand how I wanted to stop smoking so badly but just couldn’t do it — not even for ten minutes. I would immediately light a cigarette the moment I started thinking about quitting.

I searched, read, and watched many articles, TED Talks like “A simple way to break a bad habit” by Judson Brewer, and books about why we smoke, how the human brain works, how humans get addicted, and the real meaning behind it.

After ten years of countless restarts, I finally got it:

I was filling a hole inside me. By smoking another cigarette, I was sinking any feeling that I would label as bad or uncomfortable. I just wanted to feel “normal” as fast as I could, and was convinced I could do that by smoking.

Interestingly, one of the things that most made me realize this was a scientific experiment from the 70s about addiction that caught my attention. It opened the door to a set of tactics that finally, when used together, helped me quit smoking for good.


The Rat Park Experiment

In this classic set of studies to understand addiction, rats were isolated in small cages with two water containers — one with plain water and another one with cocaine or heroin. As you may guess, each rat started drinking the water with the drug substance, obsessively, until it would die.

However, a curious researcher, Bruce Alexander, decided to replicate the same experience with a different variable. This time, Bruce used a much bigger cage (about 200 times the floor size of the previous ones) and gathered more rats together so they could play, socialize, and mate with each other. He also included stimulant toys such as wheels and tunnels.

Surprisingly, the rats preferred to drink from the plain water and, in the end, they would not get addicted to the drug substance. What does this experiment tell us, and what does it have to do with quitting smoking?

The answer to this question is this: if the basic elements for a person’s well-being do not exist, a person is compelled to cope in other ways. Addiction — to cocaine, nicotine, alcohol, sex, food, negative self-talk, or any other type — is an effective method for coping with something.

For the first time, I clearly understood what I was doing. All the bad feelings I didn’t want to feel were my cage, and I was a little rat inside that cage, isolated and trapped.

I was a rat in a cage that couldn’t comprehend why my father knew he was severely sick and didn’t want to be saved. A rat in a cage that suffered from the isolation of my mother’s emotional indifference for years.

Cigarettes had been my way to cope with my pain. I knew then that I needed to conquer these feelings and to be friends with my pain. To make it mine so I could feel normal and be, once and for all, myself again.

And after a decade of trials and errors, I discovered the most suitable plan that finally made me smoke-free, but most importantly — free.

Now, if you got to this point of my story and you’re still here, it means that you’re willing to conquer your own pain. By all means, you can combine this plan with other types of methods that you find helpful, like using nicotine gum.

But I have to tell you that to conquer your pain and be friends with it, you need to fully hear it and feel it—with no masks or filters.


The Tactics That Finally Made Me Smoke-Free — and, Better Yet, Free in General

Like other Better Humans writers, I receive no commissions from the links I share here. I am sharing them because, after trying so many times, these are the things helped me stop smoking—and I hope some or all may help you as well.

Our brains evolved in a way that we keep doing the things that make us feel comfortable in order to survive. So when we feel uncomfortable, we want to run away and never look back.

To know if something is comfortable or uncomfortable, we often label it as good or bad. We learn to do this from the time we are infants. Evolutionarily speaking, this is good and necessary — it’s how we keep ourselves alive.

Photo by Collis

The same happens with cigarettes. When we feel emotions that we previously labeled as bad (like anger, sadness, fear, anxiety, rancor, distrust, bitterness, frustration, resentment, guilt, despair, loneliness, disappointment, boredom), we want to run away.

We search for an escape.

Why? — Because we feel uncomfortable.

What we really want is that uncomfortable emotion to vanish as fast as possible and to feel normal, safe, and comfortable.

Every time a smoker pulls out another cigarette, what the smoker is doing is trying to avoid one or more uncomfortable emotions.

What you have to do instead is to welcome your uncomfortable emotions.

All of them.

Let your uncomfortable emotions be in your body. Offer them your full attention. Let them know you care.

Accept them.

Say “hello!” to them. Seriously.

Let your emotions just be what they are: a compass to let you know what you feel about a certain person, thing, or situation.

Our emotions don’t exist to be avoided, ignored, or sunk with countless cigarettes a day (or any other drug).

They exist to be heard. Felt. They are yours and you are theirs.

This was a critical practice in my smoking cessation. I had to learn how to notice the feelings that triggered my desire to smoke and accept them with all of their discomfort—instead of lighting a cigarette to make them go away.

When you know what is right and what is wrong for yourself, but something in you still wants to do what is wrong, I call this voice the “Ugly Mind”. You probably know that feeling: you’re still kind of willing to hear the wrong side that tries to convince you to play on its team.

In my case, every time I screamed to myself “I WILL NOT SMOKE ANYMORE, I’M SICK OF THIS”, my Ugly Mind would whisper:

“Not today.”

It felt like it was unbeatable.

I would get angry and scream again to myself “I MEAN IT! I WON’T TOUCH A CIGARETTE EVER AGAIN, I’M DONE WITH THIS!”.

And my Ugly Mind would be there listening and calmly say, “oh darling, you will.”

Was I weak? Maybe. I knew several people that quit smoking cold turkey and woke up one day and did not have a single puff.

But not me. I wished it was that simple. I needed to go deeper and meet my Ugly Mind. I couldn’t understand how I could desire something so badly and still sabotage myself. How could I feel so sick from smoking so many cigarettes every day, and still drag endless puffs?

So I decided to start talking to my Ugly Mind. Every time I craved smoking, I would speak aloud (if alone) or think to myself:

My dear Ugly Mind [you can call it whatever you want],

I need to have a chat with you, from me to you.

Can you please help us not wanting to smoke cigarettes?

You see, they are slowly killing us and do no good to our being. They take our energy away, they make us unhealthy, ugly, sticky on the inside and cost us a lot of money which we could be spending on positive things.

I know cigarettes helped us in some way in the past, in moments when we most needed them. But at this moment we are OK.

Cigarettes don’t need to be part of our life anymore.

We are safe, we are lovable, and we are worthy. Cigarettes don’t need to fill in our feeling of emptiness. And in case we feel that emptiness again, we can deal with it through other ways. We can breathe deeply, make a nice cup of tea or go for a walk. I promise it will work.

Please, my dear Ugly Mind, I appreciate your help, but we need to stop.

Cigarettes served their purpose, once. But right now, they don’t serve us.

Not anymore.

I understand this may sound a bit nuts to you. But your mind does what you say. Have absolutely no doubts about this, and I will repeat:

Your mind does what you say.

My urges to smoke got easier to handle—and much easier to cope with.

Eventually, I had three urges to smoke a day, instead of twenty or thirty. I discovered that, by calmly chatting with my Ugly Mind with no judgment or frustration, I could easily see other people smoking without needing to have one myself. I could have lighters and ashtrays around me and be at ease. It was something that, before, was completely impossible.

It was as if my Ugly Mind was on my side at last.

Understanding and leveraging the idea of my inner child was also a great help.

“Inner child work is the process of contacting, understanding, embracing and healing your inner child. Your inner child represents your first original self that entered into this world.” — Mateo Sol in Inner Child Work: 4 Healing Techniques to Rediscover Your Original Innocence

Every time I craved a cigarette, I tried to stop the automatic movement to immediately reach my pack, and instead, I would ask myself:

Why do I need to smoke now?

What am I feeling right now that makes me want to lit another one? Is it sadness? Frustration? Is it just because I’m bored?

Is my body really craving nicotine or am I trying to hide something from myself? And if so, what is it?

The answers I got always seemed different at first. In the beginning, I simply didn’t find an answer and just put the cigarette in my mouth. But soon enough, I started to get more of a sense of what I was asking for.

For example, I started noticing that if my husband was busy for some reason and I couldn’t get his attention, I would get my cigarettes. Or if someone would speak to me rudely or hurt my feelings (which, by the way, were pretty easy to hurt), I would immediately smoke a bunch of cigarettes in the space of one hour. Or if I wanted to say something and speak up but didn’t do so because I was afraid to be left out, I would simply smoke.

I started to understand where 99.999 percent of my cravings were really coming from.

I would then ask myself:

Why am I feeling this way?

And after some attempts, I found a pattern of answers. It would always be one or more of these:

Because I am lonely;

Because I am not good enough; or

Because I am not lovable.

Once the reason why I wanted to smoke was clear to me, I would ask myself:

When was the first time I felt this in my life?

Believe me, there were so many times I asked this question and didn’t even need to finish the whole sentence. I would be transported through a spiral of thousands of memories, where my brain and heart would make me feel the exact same feeling I was holding at that moment. These were from decades ago—from my childhood and adolescent years.

I would see myself as a 17-year-old crying in my bed at my mother’s house, craving for her love and support.

Photo by Ana Francisconi

Sometimes, the same feelings (lonely/not good enough/not lovable, etc) would get me to different memories that, although lived with different intensities and in different years and places, made me feel the same.

In a way, I decided to relive all those memories from those years and allow myself to feel that pain once again. Only this time, I would give my pain exactly what it needed.

I would visualize my little-self in that memory, reach her, and mentally hug her. I would tell her — “Hey, it’s OK to feel like that. I am here for you. I love you.”

I repeated this technique countless times until my little-self would feel loved, worthy, and safe.

Ultimately, those feelings stopped tormenting me. And I realized that because I didn’t feel the urge to smoke so much anymore.

When people say “I tried meditating and gave up completely because my mind is always racing,” they don’t really understand what meditation is.

Simply said, meditation is just that — to let your mind race. However, you are practicing awareness of it, instead of being constantly in auto-pilot and letting your mind rule for you.

If you’re not sure about meditation, feel free to check this article from Sílvia Bastos. She knows her stuff.

Meditating regularly, even for just ten minutes per day, allows us to better understand our thoughts and feelings — not to mention an infinite number of other benefits. Nowadays, understanding our thoughts and feelings is a big deal.

So please, meditate.

One of the best meditations I used to quit smoking was from Michael Sealey. Although he calls it self-hypnosis, I used it like a normal meditation that I would listen to while sitting down on a pillow with my legs crossed. But you can use it while you’re laying in bed, if you prefer.

What his meditation practice does is give you a different perspective on smoking cigarettes. It takes you on a journey where you imagine two of your possible future selves — the one who smokes and the one who doesn’t.
I was not the same person after I finished it, and my urges to smoke really stopped having such powerful control over me.

My recommendation is to listen to it for several days, as you need it.

This wonderful man is also known as The Cigarette Whisperer. Rocky provided a major shift in my smoking career. I found him through my desperate web searches on how to quit smoking.

After watching this video, I was convinced enough to send Rocky an email, to which he promptly responded and scheduled a two-hour video call — for free.

Rocky is a professional who can “help anyone get smoke-free in 72 hours without tricks, gimmicks, drugs, nicotine replacements, hypnosis or b.s.” and to me, he was the key that was missing.

Within these two hours of talking about my relationship with cigarettes, Rocky was able to completely blow my mind and to make me think about my addiction with a whole different perspective. He taught me how to deal with cravings instead of avoiding them all the time.

I can tell you that one of the tricks Rocky told me to start my journey, which was to tell myself every single time I wanted a cigarette:

I am a nicotine-addicted.

I want to smoke. I can smoke.

I don’t have to quit.

However, by not smoking this cigarette I will gain [insert the benefits that most impact you for not smoking, which in my case were:]

— a huge amount of energy to go through my day; a beautiful white smile and nice breath; more years to live; my lungs clean and no more nasty cough; a wonderful smell in my hair, hands and clothes; better sex; more confidence and self-esteem; pride in myself.

Why does this work?

Because when we tell ourselves “I don’t want to smoke”/“I can’t smoke anymore”/“I have to quit”, what we’re doing is telling ourselves a bunch of big, fat lies. Of course we want to smoke.

We just don’t want to suffer the consequences of smoking.

And of course we can smoke — cigarettes are always available everywhere we go.

Of course we don’t have to quit smoking. No one is pointing a gun at our head, we can do whatever we want. It’s our choice.

Honestly, if we try to rely on those kinds of falsehoods, what we want in the end is a cigarette.

Simple but extremely wise tricks like this will be your getaway from your addiction to cigarettes. Rocky was the only professional I found that was not trying to trick me or just using me to make money. In the end, he informed me that if I needed more help after the free video call, I could have him as my consultant for the next four days, or I could buy his book. He made absolutely no pressure and the truth is, I ended up buying his book and his suggestions made a huge impact on me.


Getting Free

Eventually, I understood that my dad didn’t want to die. He just didn’t want to be a burden to me and my mom. I also understood that my mom was in deep pain. She just didn’t know a better way to cope with it and did everything she could.

After ten years of smoking obsessively, I was finally smoke-free.

But most importantly — I was free.

With this said, I wish you nothing but the best. We get addicted to something as a way of coping with our uncomfortable feelings—our emotions labeled as bad, and our pain. Understanding these feelings, accepting them, and finding new ways to work with them were the keys to my ability to quit smoking.

There is a way out and I have no doubt you can do it, too.

Do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions. Good luck. 🌞

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Joana Reis

Written by

I believe in "the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. Because they change things. They push the human race forward." — Researcher · Writer · Backed by Science

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade