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How Do I Recover from a Smoking Relapse?

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Updated February 18, 2013

How Do I Recover from a Smoking Relapse? iStockphoto
Question: How Do I Recover from a Smoking Relapse?
I don't know what happened... I quit smoking 4 months ago and have done well, overall. Lately though, I've been missing cigarettes a little. I think about how nice it would be to light up and how much smoking used to relax me.

All of a sudden and without warning, I found myself asking a friend for a cigarette one day, and had lit it almost before I realized it. It happened out of the blue - I sure didn't see that coming. I've been smoking a few every day since then, and feel miserable. How did this happen when I was doing so well, and what can I do to recover?

Answer:

It's not uncommon for people to describe a smoking relapse as something that happened "out of the blue".

While lighting the first cigarette that breaks your quit never happens by chance, it can feel that way.

Recognize Junkie Thinking

The seeds of a smoking relapse are often planted days or even weeks before the actual event occurs. The shift in thinking might start with something as simple as passing a stranger who is sitting on a park bench "relaxing" with a cigarette. You might think,

"He gets to smoke, but I can't because I quit."

Feelings of deprivation - of sacrifice, are enough to set the stage for a smoking slip. If left unchecked, those thoughts can fester and grow over time until you're feeling sorry for yourself and obsessing about smoking. It's all about perception. If you tell yourself that smoking has value and you're making a big sacrifice by quitting, you'll probably find yourself smoking again eventually.

Romancing the Cigarette

Once you put some distance between yourself and that last cigarette you smoked, the edges of your quit can get a little fuzzy. It's easy to forget why you thought it was so important to stop smoking. Maybe that chronic cough is gone, or you think that quitting hasn't been so hard. You tell yourself that you could go back to smoking for a little while and then stop again -- no big deal.

Like an unhealthy relationship you had to leave behind, it's easy to remember the "good times" and not the bad. We've all done it. We think about how nice it was to relax on the deck with a smoke after a big dinner. What we conveniently forget is all of the other smokes throughout the day that weren't so enjoyable - the ones that left us headachey, tired and out of breath.

While you may have the nicotine out of your system, the habit of smoking holds on a lot longer. If junkie thinking takes hold, you may be amazed at the creative justifications your mind comes up with to allow yourself to smoke just one cigarette. They're all lies of course, but they can be seductive. Most of us have lost at least one quit attempt to faulty thinking.

Pay close attention to the background noise in your mind and correct thoughts of smoking as they come along. Don't allow them to grow into an urge to smoke that you can't control. Nip smoking thoughts in the bud and protect your quit.

Recovering from a Smoking Slip

If you've smoked one cigarette...or more, junkie thinking has gotten its way and will continue to influence you if you let it. In order to preserve your quit program and avoid a long-term smoking relapse, you must stop smoking now and get your mind working for you instead of against you once again. You'll be busily trying to rationalize why you should put off quitting, but don't listen to the lies. Get right back up on that horse and start riding again.

Use the list of suggestions below to get yourself back on track:
  • Write out a list of reasons for quitting. If you've done this before, get your list out and read it over and add to it. Carry it with you and refer to it when you’re feeling unsteady. Those reasons are no less true today than they were when you first quit smoking. Bring them back into focus - they'll help you get your priorities in order.
  • Educate yourself. Read everything you can about what smoking does to your health. Face the dangers of smoking straight on. It's a great way to build resolve.
  • Get support. In person and online, seek out the help of others. The Smoking Cessation Forum here at About.com is a very active community of people who are going through what you are. Sign in as a guest to read or register (free) to post messages of your own.
  • Apply yourself just one simple day at a time. Don't worry about the fact that you slipped; it happens and is in the past. Don't worry about never smoking again either. Just think about today, and doing the best you can with it. You can stay smoke free just for today, can't you? That's all you need to do. Your quit program will be much easier to maintain if you follow this rule; don't overwhelm yourself by projecting forward or back. Your point of power is in the here and now. You can't change what happened yesterday, and the best way to influence your future is by doing a good job with today. Keep things simple and in the present tense.
  • Accept yourself. We're all human and make mistakes. You slipped and smoked, but it doesn't mean you're a failure. Learn from what went wrong and make corrections to avoid the same problem in the future.
Be kind to yourself and be patient too. Relax and take your quit as it comes. You'll have good days and bad days, but over time, the good will outweigh the bad. Pamper yourself a little and don't expect too much too quickly. Slow and steady wins the race every time, and this race is one that will reward you with improved health, confidence and quality of life overall.

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