Experts argue about the term that most accurately describes that longing for a cigarette, that itch that cries out for scratching, but no confirmed smoker has any problem identifying the experience. Craving, urge, desire – whatever you choose to call it – can emerge in half an hour or even less after smoking in an ongoing smoker and is the reason many attempts to quit founder within 24 hours of abstaining from cigarettes.
For someone trying to quit, the discomfort of the experience itself is compounded by the fear that craving will persist for years, a standard feature of quit-smoking lore. Now, a recent internet survey of former smokers of up to ten years provides some reassurance on this score. Although over half the respondents reported at least a casual desire to smoke “within the past year,” only around 10% experienced “clinically significant” persistent craving. Highly dependent smokers and smokers with mental health issues are more likely to find themselves in this predicament.
Whether you quit ten hours or ten years ago, you need an effective and rapid response to these unwanted intrusions in your nonsmoking life – something that can distract you or provide some of the relief you used to get from smoking a cigarette. A little experimentation may help you find the craving busters that work best for you. Techniques that others have found useful include simulating inhalation by taking a series of deep breaths, oral substitution – something to put in your mouth (e.g., a stick of gum or a low-calorie snack like a sliced carrot or a banana; sweet is good!), or finding something to do with your hands (a few rows of knitting?). Recent ex-smokers generally get good results with nicotine substitution via nicotine gum – and the occasional longtime quitter with serious, intractable cravings may resort to it as well. (The transdermal patch, absorbed slowly through the skin, is helpful in preventing craving on a chronic basis but won’t do the trick for acute episodes of craving.)
Topping my own list of favorites are physical activities that you can complete quickly and repeat as needed. The goal here is not physical fitness but rather just enough activity to compensate for or mimic the effects of smoking – which, like exercise, releases stimulatory substances called catecholamines in your body. The easiest thing you can do is to get up and walk around for a few minutes. Or – keep a pair of small hand weights or a Dyna-Band handy for a five-minute mini-workout. If you’re a yoga person, try a sun salutation or strike a warrior pose. A number of DVDs with short exercise routines are available, including The Firm’s 5-day abs workouts, each lasting just a few minutes, and Billy Blanks’ 8-minute Tae-Bo workout. For more suggestions, check out The Anytime, Anywhere Exercise Book,by Joan Price and Lawrence Kassman, which provides instructions for more than three hundred quick and easy exercises. Bursts of physical activity can also help to counteract depressed mood, a withdrawal effect that may trigger craving.
Cynthia S. Pomerleau, Ph.D., is currently research professor emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. From 1985 to 2009 she served as director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory, where much of her research focused on the impact of smoking on women. She is the author of more than a hundred articles and book chapters on smoking and a contributor to the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Women and Smoking.