Getting Help with the Mental Part of Tobacco Addiction

Tobacco withdrawal affects the body and the brain

What to expect

Nicotine is the drug in tobacco that causes pleasant feelings and distracts the smoker from unpleasant feelings. Over time, a person becomes physically dependent on and emotionally addicted to nicotine. This physical dependence causes unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit. There are mental and emotional effects, too. Nicotine actually affects brain chemistry and emotions.

The process of quitting smoking can cause:

  • Depression
  • Sadness or grief
  • A sense of loss
  • Frustration
  • Impatience
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Restlessness or boredom

What you can do

There are many tools to help quit smoking for good. In most cases, smokers are aware of the annoying physical symptoms and think about things like nicotine replacement therapies and medicines to help with them. But they may not be ready for the mental part, which can be a bigger challenge.

The emotional and mental dependence (addiction) make it hard to stay away from nicotine after you quit. To quit and stay quit, smokers must deal with both the physical and mental dependence. Fortunately, there’s a wide range of counseling services, self-help materials, and support services available to help you get through this time. And just like the physical symptoms, the emotional changes get better over time.

You can prepare yourself for the mental part of tobacco withdrawal.

Stop-smoking programs

Telephone-based help to stop smoking

All 50 states and the District of Columbia offer some type of free, telephone-based program that links callers with trained counselors. These specialists help plan a quit method that fits each person’s unique smoking pattern. People who use telephone counseling have twice the success rate in quitting smoking as those who don’t get this type of help.

Counselors may suggest a combination of methods including medicines, local classes, self-help brochures, and/or a network of family and friends. Help from a counselor can keep quitters from making many common mistakes.

Telephone counseling is also easier to use than some other support programs. It doesn’t require driving, transportation, or child care, and it’s available nights and weekends.

The effectiveness of phone-based services has led to the development of many web-based quit aids and mobile apps. At this time very little is known about the success of these services or how to best use them. Still, they offer another easy-to-use support resource to people trying to quit.

Quit-smoking programs and support groups

Members of support groups for quitters can be helpful, too. One long-standing peer help program is Nicotine Anonymous® (NicA). This group holds regular meetings and applies the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to the addiction of smoking. This includes attending meetings and following the program. People new to NicA may choose a sponsor to help them through the steps and help when they are tempted to smoke. The NicA meetings are free, but donations are collected to help cover expenses. NicA also has phone meetings and web meetings, and offers online support.

You can find out if there’s a NicA group near you at 1-877-879-6422 or www.nicotine-anonymous.org. But this is only one of many types of support programs.

Often your American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, or local health department will sponsor quit smoking classes, too.

Some workplaces, hospitals, and wellness centers have stop-smoking programs, groups, or classes. They may be led by professionals and focus on information and education, or they may be run by volunteers. Some programs may be set up like classes, while others focus on sharing by members of the group. Some groups are set up for just a few weeks, and others go on indefinitely. There are lots of options, and different types of groups work better for different people. Find one that works for you.

For people who can’t go to support group meetings, there are online support systems as well as phone-based support (see above).

Check with your employer, health insurance company, or local hospital to find a support group that fit your needs. Or call your American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 to find out what support services might be available where you live.

What to look for in a stop-smoking program

Stop-smoking programs are designed to help smokers recognize and cope with problems that come up while quitting. The programs should also provide support and encouragement in staying quit. This helps the ex-smoker avoid many of the common pitfalls of quitting.

Studies have shown that the best programs include either one-on-one or group counseling. There’s a strong link between how often and how long counseling lasts (its intensity) and the success rate – overall, the more intense the program, the greater the chance of success.

Intensity may be increased by having more or longer sessions or by increasing the number of weeks over which the sessions are given. So when looking for a program, try to find one that has the following:

  • Each session lasts at least 15 to 30 minutes
  • There are at least 4 sessions
  • The program lasts at least 2 weeks (longer is usually better)

Make sure the leader of the group is trained in smoking cessation.

Not all programs are honest, so be careful. Think twice about any programs that:

  • Promise instant, easy success with little to no effort on your part
  • Use shots (injections) or pills, especially “secret” ingredients
  • Advertise 100% success rate with no ill effects
  • Charge a very high fee (check with the Better Business Bureau if you have doubts)
  • Won’t give you references and phone numbers of people who have used the program

Support of family and friends

Many former smokers say a support network of family and friends was very important during their quit attempt. Other people who may offer support and encouragement are your co-workers and your family doctor. Tell your friends about your plans to quit. Try to spend time with non-smokers and ex-smokers who support your efforts to quit. Talk with them about what you need – for instance, patience as you go through cravings, taking your late-night or early-morning phone calls, and plans for doing things in smoke-free settings. Find out what you can count on each friend or family member to do. You can also suggest that they read Helping a Smoker Quit: Do’s and Don’ts.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Medical Review: April 19, 2016 Last Revised: April 19, 2016

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