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I’m an emotional wreck when I quit. What can I do?

Dear Advisor,

Previous attempts at quitting left me an emotional wreck and I cried a lot.  Now I am menopausal – in other words – emotional.

I can’t afford to let my emotions get the best of me.  Is this crying part of the grieving process?


Emotional Wreck

Dear Wreck,

There are actually a handful of things going on for you, some of them inter-related.  You identified a couple of them yourself:

First, you mention that you are menopausal.

This certainly has an impact on your emotional state.  This impact happens both directly as a result of hormonal changes, and possibly indirectly as you deal with a changing stage of life.  As you probably know, just about any major change in our lives can be stressful, and transitioning from one phase of life to then next certainly qualifies as a ‘major change.’

Second, the grief process is certainly at play here, too.

You already know that when you quit smoking you experience stages of the grief process, no matter how much you want to quit, and how much better and happier you’ll feel afterwards.  You may also be experiencing some grief stages as a result of your life transition as well – after all, you are ‘leaving behind’ one stage of your life as you move into another.  So the depression stage of the grief process could certainly be a factor in your crying jags.

Finally, there is a third aspect to all of this that you may not be aware of.

For most people, smoking is a way to ‘mask’ or ‘stuff’ your emotions.  In other words, as a smoker, one of your first responses to any emotional situation is to light a cigarette.  Think about it: if something upsets you, you want to smoke, right?  If something makes you angry, sad, scared…  smoking a cigarette (or several) is a common response.  Even positive emotions like being excited or happy generally merit a ‘celebratory’ smoke for most smokers.

So part of what happens when you quit smoking is that you now have to deal with whatever emotions arise for you at full force – you don’t have the cigarette to run interference for you.

From a big-picture perspective, this is not a bad thing.  Emotions are a part of what makes life worth living, after all.  But until your body and brain adjust to the new situation, it can be a little overwhelming, as you’ve experienced.

To get to where you want to go, attack the problem from several angles.

The first line of attack is your doc or other trusted medical advisor:

Ask him or her about managing the physiological aspects of menopause.  I’m no expert on that topic, so I’ll refrain from offering specific advice in that arena.  However, there are a variety of options out there, so explore them to see what might be right for you.

The second part of the strategy is managing the grief process:

One of the interesting things about the grief process is that we tend to experience it for any loss, even when the gain outweighs the loss.  For instance, people will experience aspects of the grief process even when something good happens, like a promotion at work – because they are ‘losing’ some things that are familiar to them, such as specific job duties, or a aspects of their relationships with colleagues, as the dynamic of those relationships change.

The same thing is true with regard to the ‘loss’ associated with quitting smoking.  The gains are so much more significant than the loss it’s not even funny, but we still suffer through the feelings of loss.

One of the ways to speed up the grief process is to focus on the gains rather than the loss.  I don’t mean deny the sense of loss, or any real aspects of it – you may recognize denial as the initial stage of the grief process, and you don’t want to go back there!  So when it comes up for you acknowledge what you’ll miss, but then pull your focus back to what you are gaining.  In this way you can minimize your sense of loss without denying it, and move through the grief process more quickly.

Be persistent.

By the way, if you feel that you may be experiencing a sense of loss or grieving related to menopause, you may want to try a similar technique.  Do some research on the web, find an online support group or a local one for women moving through menopause, and actively work your way through it.

Finally, when you quit smoking, you’ll need a new strategy for dealing with emotions.

Since you’ll no longer be dampening your emotions with cigarettes, they may seem overwhelming at first, so developing strategies for dealing with them is critical.  You may even want to consider a strategy for each emotion type:  a strategy for dealing with stress, a strategy for ‘rewarding’ yourself, a strategy for dealing with anger, and sadness, and fear.

While there’s not time to go into a strategy for each of these, I do have some general advice for you:

First, think about ways to process intense emotions that might work for you.  (By “process,” I mean experience the emotions and move through them, rather than trying to find ways to suppress them or escape from them.)

Some things that have worked for other people: talking to a trusted friend, writing in a journal, exercise/physical movement, consulting with a therapist or trusted advisor, learning to meditate, pounding on pillows or taking a kick-boxing class, etc.

For sadness/crying, I’m going to advise something that is probably very counterintuitive: physical movement.  I know it’s the last thing you want to do, but it is probably the one thing that can help you the most, initially.  Here’s why:

Our bodies and brains ‘feed’ off of each other in what is called an emotional feedback loop.  Using facial muscles that are designed for smiling actually improves mood; slumping over has been proven to make people feel more depressed.  Stillness is associated with sadness and depression, and physical movement with more upbeat emotions.

So move.  Take a short walk.  Get up from the chair or couch (or bed or floor) and take one slow step after another.  Tell yourself you only have to move for 60 seconds if that’s what it takes to convince yourself to get up.  Then, after 60 seconds if you feel like you could go a little longer, you can choose to do it.  If not, not.

My advice?  Don’t worry about being perfect.

But be persistent.


How about the rest of you – have you experienced intense emotions after quitting smoking?  What strategies have you developed to deal with them?  What do you think you want to try next?  Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

{ 17 comments… add one }

  • Jean November 8, 2009, 9:15 AM

    well, i picked up cigarettes again. my last attempt lasted about a week. but the desire to smoke was overwhelming. I did wear the patch. drank more water, kept my body and mind busy. when i quit again, i am going to try to hold off not picking up the cigarette, just keep putting it off. And, yes i have a lot on my plate right now. Planning my relocation to Florida. I haven’t given up hope, i will try again.

    • Matt October 15, 2016, 9:52 AM

      Try not using the patch or any nicotine replacement, why draw out the torture? That never made any sense to me and I think it’s a giant farce. I’m 3 weeks clean of cigs for the first time since I started 15 years ago. I know you can do it too

  • Sherron November 8, 2009, 9:46 AM

    I smoked from age 17-29. I became super religios and quit smoking and drinking. I quit drinking for 20 years and quit smoking for 22 years. My son went through a life threatening time and my husband of 34 years and I divorced. I picked up a pack of cigarettes and began smoking in January of ’07. My daughter told me it was because I could. In religion I had so many “shouldn’ts” to Sherronlewis found that only men smoked in my childhood world. Women who smoked were viewed as “cheap”. I love to smoke but I fear the consequences. My ex sister in law said she knows I will quit soon. Any thoughts???

    • Deanna November 11, 2009, 12:20 PM

      Hey Sherron,

      The most important thing for you is simply not to give up. You may also want to take a look at the previous post in this series about ‘willpower.’ One issue for you is that you feel that you like to smoke – if you work on tapping into the real reasons you want to quit, you may find some extra motivation. The your sister-in-law’s prediction may come true…

  • Edith King October 6, 2011, 12:00 PM

    Ok; first thank you and i really mean that. So i’m going to quit not trying to going to. I’ve been at this quiting thing for ever.I’m 56 and i have COPD five kids 7 grandkids. i have a back injury for work got fired for it.Was on unempolyment now i’m not.So; noi income 25 apps. a week no one will hire me.Husband lost his job an on unempolyment for $182 a week an a morgae to pay.But i will not give up.SApose to have back surery.had interview today went real good there doing a back ground check now so i’m looking up’it’s a good time to quit now(smoking i mean) I’ve tryed everything out there.I think a big part is in your mind. like retraning it to think differant.I have to beleave in my self and not give up hope.

  • Carlyn August 12, 2012, 2:18 PM

    I’ve recently quite smoking using the cold turkey method and an amazing app downloaded called QuitNow! I am already a week into my cessation but am going through allot of depression and anxiety and sobbing moments. How can I calm my self down so I don’t go back to smoking…..please help me.

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  • Amy April 24, 2015, 8:17 AM

    I quit smoking 18 days ago, I used meditation to help quit and try to keep on it. I’ve been super emotional tonight so what you say makes sense.
    I am 1 year out of an abusive relationship and recently lost all of my hair and it is growing back and I guess all the feels got on top of me. I am going to work through some coping mechanisms and the exercise bit is super helpful because I totally agree, exercise releases endorphins so helps. Fruit and veg also are natural anti depressants and also cashews! Grabbing a small handful of cashews can help as a mood enhancer. Bizarre but true!!
    I’ve had all the worst side effects, headaches, emotions, chocolate cravings, diohrrhea, exhaustion and more! But I do certainly feel better and smell better! I haven’t craved any cigarettes, having one has crossed my mind but o didn’t actually want one. I live with two smokers and having it around has not bothered me at all. I can honestly say the meditations contributed to this!
    I put on “vibrational” meditations or ones with these vibrational sounds in the background and kept in the forefront of my mind my goal and focus, “non smoker” after doing this 4 consecutive nights I woke up the next day and I didn’t want one, and haven’t wanted one since! Not kidding! Good luck to everyone!

  • Rick September 13, 2015, 6:25 PM

    Cool site, wow, i am 37 now and i started smoking when i was 13, i was diagnosed with COPD 8 years ago but i have not had the strength to quit. For years now, i keep saying to myself, i am going to quit but when i don’t have a cig i get depressed, sad, angry, i also cry when i don’t have it, the most i went was 1 day without the cig.

  • Maria March 13, 2016, 10:13 AM

    Hi All,
    My husband and I quit smoking cold turkey 11 weeks ago today. I have been smoking since I am 13 and am now 37. This is my first attempt and my husband’s second attempt. I am feeling very emotional this week. I found the first few weeks fine. We did sweat a lot and it did stink, dry throats and insomnia. However I am feeling very low this week and have had a few emotional outbursts and tears. I have read that it is possibly “icky threes” where people struggle approaching day 3,week3 or month3.

  • Robert September 15, 2016, 12:09 AM

    I managed to quit for 9 months when I was in an environment where I felt welcome. I never feel that in cities yet I am stuck in a city because I have a son in one. I switched to electronic cigs 5 years ago. I am trying to stop. I stopped for two weeks but felt the call, and got high on nicotine for about 5 days. I don’t think most people experience nicotine like I do. Then my system got saturated and I stopped getting high so I forced myself to quit again. Trying to hang on now isn’t so bad because I have learned that nicotine is pretty useless once the body is saturated. However, what I have really noticed is that in the absence of regular nicotine, I am an emotional mess. I think about how it was being high all day. I count down the days till the nicotine is out of my system enough for me to get high off it again. I know that there is a heap of things left over from adolescence that I have to find a way to deal with. I couldn’t figure them out then and I still can’t – that’s why I got addicted in the first place. Shrinks don’t listen for long enough and you wouldn’t want them to anyway. Exercise is good but hard to stick with. I have come to view most relationships as a pointless waste of time – how many people do you know or meet who’ll really be any support? Mostly it’s about massaging one another’s fragile egos, and being “good company”. Frankly, nicotine is more stimulating and less demanding than most people I meet. Told you I was a mess. Only 3 days till system reset. Woohoo! Let’s be honest the original post was 7 years ago! Nobody cares!

    • Cathy March 23, 2017, 10:33 PM

      Oh, yes, Robert, believe me, people do care. And they do understand – my relationship with nicotine is very strange, too. I also think it’s sad there’s a need for sites like this, because it obviously means that people don’t have the support they need in their own lives. In the last month I gave up twice. I’ve been off and on e-cigs for the last few years, but am using it all the time at the moment. It’s been five days now, but before it was 2 weeks. Each second feels like an hour, each hour like a day. Each day like a year!! I feel as if all the colour’s been drained out of life. Can’t concentrate, and everything is so much of a bloody effort! I cry all the time. I was a very heavy smoker and had been smoking for nearly 30 years. Sometimes I think that if I feel this terrible trying to give up perhaps it’s not worth it. Just keep on and die 10 years earlier! But I have a sort of stubbornness in me and if I relapse I’ll have to go through all this hell again. Whatever dreadful feelings you’ve had, remember you really are not alone. The really terrible time is when you suddenly think: “Oh, I’ll have a cigarette”, and then realise you can’t have one. It’s 5.30 in the morning and I’m sitting her with my patch and murdering my e-cigarette, feeling so dreadful it’s hurting my teeth. If I could stretch a hand of friendship to you, I would…. But, keep trying and above all, be good to yourself.

  • Emily Renfroe March 27, 2017, 3:25 PM

    I have been smoke free for 31 days and for the most part I am feeling AMAZING! However I have found myself uncontrollably emotional at times, which is very unlike me and it’s even began to put strain on my personal relationships. My cohabitant boyfriend says he has become a little afraid to talk to me about anything for fear of how I will respond. I know that smoking was a coping mechanism for me, in fact I purposefully used cigarettes to self medicate for years. Long story short, I started smoking at 14, then quit for over a year at 21. Then I found myself in some very bad situations, financial issues, divorce from an abusive husband, miscarriages, ect. I had panic attacks during this time and was diagnosed with situational anxiety disorder.Once during a panic attack a friend offered my one of her cigarettes said that it would probably help, because of the slow inhaling blah blah blah, i’m not sure exactly why it worked but it did, better than any medication. So I picked up smoking again. Now that I have quite again (at age 29) it feels as though I’m having to relearn how to deal with emotions(which I sort of expected), but I’m also getting emotional about things that normally wouldn’t matter much. For example I forgot to pay a bill, the bill wasn’t evan past due or anything, I just simply forgot to pay it when I had planned to and that made me cry.

  • Lisa March 28, 2017, 4:40 PM

    Ok so here’s my story please comment if you have had any of this happen to you and share what helped you thanks! Well I started vapping 1 and a half years ago cold turkey never worked for me. Starting at 24 mg of nicotine I weened myself to zero in a year. So at 0 nicotine for 9 months but at the 8 month mark I started having problems with my relationship, I’ve always been a jealous person but normally fight or talk about things then I have a few not so good days and things would be fine, but here I am. A month into being upset angry sad about jealous issues from the past hmmm…..1 year ago, 2 years ago, and some issues from 8 years ago. I’m also starting the menopause things also. So in one of the many arguments of this past month my husband says maybe it’s nicotine withdrawal I said no way not after this long, but here I am putting 3mg nicotine in my vape to see if this helps if it does I’m never quitting again. But I also was very hesitant about taking birth control for menopause because I had all the signs of a stroke when I was on it 16 years ago so the doc said back then they had different names but same dose so I did pick up a low dose birth control as suggested but part of me wants to wait until I see if the nicotine will take care of the emotional stress I’ve been going through. Any help on this issue would be appreciated…….thanks in advance

    • Donna February 25, 2018, 10:27 AM

      So when does the insanity end? How long will I be an emotional mess? I smoked for 42 years. I don’t like being a fruit loop.

  • Shannon October 26, 2018, 1:36 PM

    I am on day 3 off quitting smoking cold turkey the first few days was not much of a struggle I was happy and felt quite easy even though I did have a few cravings I’m 22 and been smoking since 13 it’s now day 3 and I’ve been crying all day just out of the blue and have a major head ache I’m still going but need a bit of help with the emotional side

  • Mary February 26, 2019, 11:41 PM

    This quit I’m letting myself cry and feel it as long as I need to. I cried 5 hours straight tonight

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