Today's Medicine

So You Quit Smoking. Arm Yourself for the Battle Ahead

Published: Nov. 15, 2021

Congratulations! Kicking the habit is an amazing accomplishment, and it’s probably the most difficult behavioral change your primary care provider will ever recommend.

As you celebrate – and you should – remember that as with any addiction, your constant vigilance is required to keep from relapsing. But there’s good reason to fight this battle: The benefits of quitting are lifelong.

Whether you’ve achieved smoking cessation or are ready to make it a reality, here are some key things to know.


Benefits of Quitting Smoking

There are numerous health benefits of quitting smoking. Some begin the day you quit.

Here are a few of the more notable benefits I stress to my patients:

Cardiovascular health: Smoking cessation is huge if you’ve already experienced a heart attack or stroke. In most cases, quitting smoking is every bit as good for secondary prevention – preventing a second heart attack or stroke – as any medication I can prescribe.

Pulmonary health: If you have COPD, you’ll notice significant improvement in your breathing over your first year being smoke-free. Chronic lung inflammation will gradually decrease with time, resulting in less mucous production and an improvement your “smoker’s cough.” While you may have permanent lung damage or scarring, you may also find you are able to complete tasks you previously struggled with because of shortness of breath.

Cancer prevention: Need another reason to go all-in? While cutting back on smoking slows the progression of heart and lung disease, your cancer risk doesn’t decline until complete cessation is achieved. Whether you have quit or not, you should know that you may be eligible for low-dose CT scans that screen for lung cancer.


Nicotine Rewires Your Brain

Ongoing vigilance is paramount whether you’ve been smoke-free for days or years. The fight doesn’t end after you’ve overcome the physical addiction because ongoing nicotine exposure has made permanent changes in your brain.

Many former smokers battle a phenomenon known as self-sabotage. During times of stress and emotional strain, people are more likely to subconsciously put themselves in situations where temptations are present. For ex-smokers, that might mean attending events where people will be smoking or hanging out with friends who are smokers.

Thanks to your “rewired” brain, typical triggers and associations from the past will always be there, and a relapse can snowball quickly. One cigarette might soon turn into the pack-a-day habit you had years ago.

Recognizing and avoiding triggers when you can is crucial to your effort to stay smoke-free.


What’s Your Motivation?

Ex-smokers have a continual battle against cravings and triggers. To win the battle, it’s important to distinguish between external and internal motivation.

External motivators: These are peripheral sources of motivation – like reading the advice of a doctor you’ve never met. Frankly, they’re weak motivators and unlikely to carry you through a nicotine crave wave in which every nerve in your body is begging for relief.

Internal motivators: These are potent, unique sources of motivation that help you to drift over a craving without relapse. They’re effective because they’re derived from your personal relationship with tobacco and how it has negatively impacted you.

It could be a recent heart attack or stroke, or even something as simple as the looks you get when smoking in public. One of my favorite examples came from a grandmother I would see at my clinic. Whenever her granddaughter sat in her lap she would say, “Grandma, I don’t like the way you smell.” That powerful memory would replay in her mind whenever she got the urge to smoke.

Having an inventory of internal motivators is key to overcoming cravings and achieving long-term tobacco cessation.


It’s Never Too Late

Quitting smoking is incredibly difficult and complex. But the benefits are life-changing. Remember, it’s never too late to quit. There are measurable benefits regardless of your age or how long you’ve smoked.

Whether you’re beginning your smoke-free journey or need help staying on track, contact your Methodist Physicians Clinic primary provider. We can help develop a plan that works for you.


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About the Author

Dr. James Maliszewski is an internal medicine doctor at Methodist Physicians Clinic. His goal is to understand what patients value most in order to provide them with effective and efficient care.

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