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Why is it so hard to quit smoking?

Dear Advisor,

I’ve tried to quit so many times I’ve lost count.  I’ve tried just about every method you can think of, including nicotine patches, acupuncture, and even medicine prescribed by my doctor.  No matter what I try, somehow I always end up smoking again.  My question is, why is it so hard for me to quit?


Lost Count in Austin

Dear Lost,

Part of the reason it’s so difficult to quit smoking is because nicotine is so darned addictive.  But there’s a lot more to the smoking habit than just the nicotine addiction, so if that’s all your quit method focuses on, you’re trying to slay a rather large, fire-breathing dragon with nothing more than a toothpick.

In other words, the other reason it’s hard is because you don’t have the right tools.

The reality is, there are a whole slew of pitfalls that have nothing to do with nicotine.

These pitfalls will drag you from the path of success like cheap tourist attractions drag you off the freeway, foiling your quit attempts time after time.  To quit successfully, you’ve got to figure out how to…

Stay on the path.

The first step is to realize that you are on a path – that quitting isn’t an event, it’s a process – a journey, if you will.  Traveling down the path on this journey, there are a lot of distractions, and frankly, it can be hard to tell when you’ve arrived at your destination.

For instance, part of this journey includes going through the grief process.

The grief process is a psychological response to losing something, like your significant other, or your job – or your smoking habit.

The stages of the grief process, first described Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

We can talk a lot about what happens during these stages and why you go through them when you quit smoking, but the most important thing to understand about the grief process is simply that it is a process.  That’s so important, I’ll say it again, bigger:

The most important thing to understand about the grief process is that it is a process.

The reason that’s important is because people often get derailed while in the stages of this process, mistaking it for their final destination.  They think that this is what it will be like for them to be a non-smoker, forever, and they go back to smoking.

For instance, they may find themselves in the anger stage, raging at the world, their spouse, kids, coworker, boss…  and they say to themselves, “Geez, it’s better to go back to smoking than to kill someone, right?”   (Or get fired, or divorced, etc.  You get the idea.)

Or during the depression stage, they have no energy for life.  Nothing seems like fun anymore – without cigarettes – and they tell themselves, “I’m so miserable – I’d rather smoke than live like this for the rest of my life!”

But the grief process is a process, not the end destination.

The stages of the grief process are just part of the journey.  If you find yourself experiencing excess anger or despair, remind yourself that these feelings are a part of the process of quitting, not the end result of quitting.

In our journey analogy, this is the scary part of town, the dark forest with the creepy looking trees, the place where the music gets low and deep…  The last thing you want to do is get out here!

So recognize that this is part of the process, and

Stay on the path.

A couple useful tidbits about the grief process:


  • The process isn’t linear.  The five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression,and acceptance – are listed roughly in order, but you won’t progress through them in a strictly linear fashion.  Instead, expect to bounce around a little bit between the stages as you make your way through them.  Picture an upward-climbing zig-zag, rather than a straight line.
  • The dangerous stages for smokers trying to quit are the middle ones:  anger, bargaining, depression.  So recognize that anger and depression are just part of this process, and watch out for ‘bargaining’ – the little voice that helps you rationalize smoking after you quit.

If you can do these two things:

1) Realize that nicotine isn’t the only thing you’re doing battle with, and

2) Remember that the scary parts along the way are not your final destination…

Your chance of slaying the dragon – for good – just went up dramatically.


What was your last quitting experience like? Did you experience anger or depression, or both?  How did you deal with them?  Did you end up smoking again?  Leave a comment and share your thoughts and experiences with others.

{ 21 comments… add one }

  • Gwyn October 16, 2009, 4:06 PM

    I quit a couple of times before now. I chew the gum which I sometimes think this makes it harder. My husband recently had a stroke and the Dr. wants hime to quit. He refuses. With him smoking it makes it so much harder for me to quit. Don’t want to blame anyone but myself but its really rough. I have cut back to between 6 and 9 cigs a day, plus the gum. I have severe COPD and desperately need to quit. My breathing is getting so much worse. Any help or any tips would be appreciated. I tried all quiting patches, pills and everything. Help!

    • Sandra October 16, 2009, 6:00 PM

      Sorry about your situation There are a few good sites to educate you about smoking/quiting….this is your quit no one elses so you need to own your quit It is hard but doable
      So just do it

    • Rick Veldman October 17, 2009, 11:34 AM

      I just passed the 2 year mark in quitting after smoking for 35 years. It is a bear, no doubt about it. And I still miss it. I was told by a couple of guys who had quit, “One day at a time.” So true. Only worry about today. Don’t look ahead at all. Just take it today. But, you have to be tough. If you can’t be tough, forget it. Just smoke and die. There is no gimmick, no gum, no patches, no Chantix, you have to do it yourself. Do you want to or not? Good luck and God bless. And by the way, pray.

      • Char March 5, 2018, 12:42 PM

        I have quit twice for just over 2 years each time, not counting the numerous less than a month times( I am a professional quitter). This time is different though because it’s the first time I did pray and asked God to do what I could not. He has not let me down :) I think your suggestion of prayer is the best advice I have seen.

  • Sueb October 16, 2009, 5:40 PM

    I am 25 years in Alcohol recovery. I’ve been a Clinic Hypnotist. I know I smoke to control my emotions. I have COPD and more. Ican not bring my self to the Jumping off point of really wanting to or try to quit smokeing I was seeing a theripist but ran out of money, I chose smoking. I know I am dieing from this and can’t stop even with knowledge Now what

    • Deanna October 17, 2009, 8:25 AM


      I’ve heard from other folks in your situation – you’re living proof that having a good reason to quit doesn’t automatically translate into the motivation to do so. I’m planning to write more about motivation in the next couple of weeks – maybe you will find that helpful.

  • Sandra October 16, 2009, 6:04 PM

    I relapsed just recently because of the depression smoked for a week but got back on the wagon and know where I went wrong I am not going to allow any of the symptoms get to me again,……..keep telling myself ……it will pass,and it does

    • Deanna October 19, 2009, 4:12 PM

      Sandra, good for you! Stay on the path. Recognizing what is going on is half the battle.

  • Dee October 16, 2009, 8:08 PM

    I have not quit yet but I limit where I smoke I leave the cigarettes out side. I am making a quit plan.

  • tracy October 16, 2009, 11:58 PM

    I quit last July. Hard to do but I got thru it. I used Zyban and aside from the weird side effects –no apetite, poor sleep, nervous,—those pills make cigs taste AWFUL!!!! Quit the pills so I could eat and sleep again LOL but have started sucking n Commit Lozenges. I can’t seem to quit those now……better than inhaling for sure. I am singing again and enjoy a long yawn every now an then. I feel fantastic!!! I refuse to be around it and enjoy being clean and fresh. If I can do it ANYONE can!!!

  • Jill October 17, 2009, 7:39 AM

    I quit smoking May 27,1908 and I am finally at the point where I don’t think about cigarettes every single day. I purposely lost weight before I quit because I didn’t think I could deal with watching my weight and quitting at the same time. I smoked about a pack a day for 25 years and was a true addict. The bottom line is I love to smoke. I hid it from everyone including my children, although they probably could smell it and didn’t admit it. The thing that keeps me a quitter is that I remember those first few months and how difficult the cravings were and I will never take even on puff again. If I do, I know I will smoke forever. It is the most difficult thing to do and if you fail don’t let it stop you from trying again. You have to really want to quit deep down regardless of what anyone says. Even doctors. Please try over and over. You will feel like a new person.

  • vickie October 17, 2009, 6:53 PM

    I have not smoked a cigarette now for 2 weeks and I feel it has really been a big hurdle for me. I am using the patches and wellbutrin. I am ont medicine also for depression. I dont sleep well but to me it is worth the lost sleep, to get over this addiction. I wake up every day and ask god to give me the strength not to smoke today and at night I thank him for giving me the strength for making it that day. It really helps

  • Shirley October 19, 2009, 11:09 AM

    I found this website in an effort to help my husband quit. He is 57 has has smoked most of his adult life. He promised me he would quit before our first child was born (29) years ago, every cig he smokes feels like a betrayal to me and our kids. I don’t nag but he knows how I feel , how can I help him quit without resenting me?

    • Deanna October 19, 2009, 4:00 PM


      I’m sure you already know that he has to want to quit – you can’t do it for him. However, you may be able to help him find the motivation to quit. I’m going to write more about motivation in the next couple of weeks, but here’s a brief preview:

      In my experience, there are three aspects that influence whether someone will even make an attempt to quit: 1) having a clear sense of what you gain by quitting [and lose by continuing to smoke]; 2) having a realistic sense of what cigarettes do for you, and what they don’t do; and 3) believing that you actually CAN quit.

      I’m going to talk about all three of those in the next couple of weeks – if you can get your husband to tune in, he may find it helpful. You can also use the ‘ask a question’ tab above to send me a private e-mail with more detail about his situation, if you like.

  • Cynthia Martin October 22, 2009, 1:10 PM

    Every pack i buy a day I say, I am going to quit after this pack. Needless to say i end up smoking. Buying a pack a day is so expensive. I ‘m losing a lot of money. Health is not great and i still can’t say No. I am worried and scared. This is not the way i want to go. I feel pressured all the time.

  • Diann Ford November 6, 2009, 10:12 AM

    Keep reading and hopeful for inspiration. Still looking for that
    magical remedy.

    I have attempted to quit smoking a dozen times- Have tried patches, gum, hypnotist, shots in the back of the ear, electronic cigarettes.
    I am now very close to losing my leg. Having 2nd bypass next week.
    I am on my 2nd day of trying not to smoke. It is probably the hardest thing I have ever tried to do-
    I am tired of making excuses- Hopeful this is the time I make it work.

    • Deanna November 11, 2009, 12:29 PM


      Good luck to you. Try to *want* to quit as much as you *need* to quit. Also, if you need some extra help, find a program with support – the American Lung Association has one (it’s free) and I have developed one called The Complete Quit System (not free, but worth every penny if it helps you). You can learn more about both of them by clicking on the resources tab at the top of this page.

      Again, best of luck to you.

  • mattie November 9, 2009, 5:16 AM

    this is my 9th day of trying to quit i have relapsed twice but i cant give up. thank you for letting me know about the stages i guess im in the bargining stage because i said to my self just one cigarette and i can start back quitting after that. but just to understand that there is a bargaining stage helps because now i know its normal just another stage to go through right? sure be glad when i get to acceptance.

    • Deanna November 11, 2009, 12:30 PM


      I’m glad the info was helpful to you. You are correct – that little mental maneuver is indeed a function of the bargaining stage. Recognizing it does help, doesn’t it? Good luck!

  • Meabh February 23, 2016, 6:50 AM


    This is the first piece of information I have read since I have gave up the cigarettes – 1 week. Thank you very much for explaining the process and journey of quiting. I have been extremely vulnerable anxious and depressed since I have gave up and I didn’t even think it was the smoking!
    This makes so much sense, I feel much more relaxed and positive after reading this.

    Thank you


  • Diane March 24, 2020, 6:11 PM

    Approximately 2 months ago I quit for the 4th time. I’m 63 and started smoking at 22. I identified with the “grief” part and got to the bargaining stage. I’m looking forward to quitting. All four of my siblings have also fought the dragon and it’s been decades for a couple and years for another one. One got hypnotized, one quir cold Turkey, my sister uses an Alto e cig, which has nicotine, but none of the other poisons in filtered cigs. I was using the Alto but misplq ed it so bargained with myself to buy a pack and set about to find my e cig. 2 pls later, THEN I find the e-cig… bargains were all played out and u sold myself out to cigarettes again. I’ve quit for over a year twice many years ago. When my husband passed away, I quit for 3 months and started again. It is so hard to be around others who smoke. That’s when my bargaining starts. Helps to begin to look at it as a journey or a process. Thanks, sorry so long. Di

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