The science and misery of quitting smoking

This blog is taking a bit longer to do than normal due to it being difficult to concentrate, my family deliberately trying to annoy me, and the TV consciously showing bad programs. If I were you I would be very very careful how you comment on this blog!

The explanation: I have now been without my beloved cigarettes for 36 long long hours. I gave up for about three months around the birth of my latest daughter, but started again recently. I have decided to quit before I get back up to the 40 a day mark.

Professionally I know all about addiction, withdrawal and relapse. I know the current feelings of irrational anger and irritability will pass in a couple of days and I'll start feeling better; or at least richer!

So, why is it soooo hard?

Well it's hard because nicotine causes your brain to release various chemicals, one of which is dopamine. Dopamine does lots of things in the brain, but is crucial in the 'reward pathway'; giving us that pleasant feeling that we have done well. After you've smoked for a while the brain raises the bar (technically speaking the receptors up-regulate) so you have to smoke more to get the same effect. When you don't smoke, because the bar has been 'raised' you don't feel ok. You feel angry, irritable and tired. Have a cigarette and you feel good again so you're brain learns this is the solution.

When you quit you have to wait for the bar to come down, this probably happens quite quickly, which is why the irritability gets better after a few days. Unfortunately all that 'learning' doesn't go away and 40 lessons a day for ten years is a lot of learning. This means every-time you feel stressed or irritated you're brain says 'have a cigarette!'. It is the unlearning and resisting this automatic response that is crucial in the longer term.

 The evil weed!  Courtesy Henry Kotowski    Henryk Kotowski

The evil weed!

Courtesy Henry Kotowski

Henryk Kotowski

As a way to distract from the cravings it is actually quite useful doing this so over the next few weeks I'll be updating you on ways to kick the habit. For those of you who are interested I'm currently on trans-dermal patches and  nicotine lozenges.

In truth me deciding to do some blogs on this and tell people I'm quitting is part of the strategy. Telling others you're quitting has two effects; you will get some sympathy and support. Indeed, when I let slip in my local bar I had started again a friend asked me to hold his beer while he hit me for being so stupid. Now, that's a friend!

The other effect, which for me is probably stronger is that if you slip back you have to admit you've failed, which always feels bad.

Well I'll keep you all updated as to my progress and the current science on what helps in quitting.

Wish me luck, and apologies to my family for being such a misery!

Andres FonsecaComment