How to Kill the Dragon

by Deanna Sykes on December 11, 2009

Dear Advisor,

I’ve been smoking for about 45 years, and recently I tried the 3-month program using Chantix.  I’ve been off the pills just over two months now and I haven’t smoked, but my life is a mess trying to stay quit.

iStock_000004741362Small-narrowI get up around 1 PM then sit-lay-sleep on couch till about 3 AM when I go to bed. I try to sleep as much as I can to avoid smoking.  I usually don’t bother getting dressed, sit around in my robe.  I often go a week before taking a shower.

None of this was me 4 months ago.

Before quitting I was an active person.  Now I’ve turned into a recluse trying to avoid places where I smoked.  I have a nice hobby machine shop I can tinker in but I don’t because I always smoked while in the shop.

I constantly crave cigarettes, and it’s not getting any easier as time goes by.  Any advice will be sincerely appreciated.

Signed,

Down & Out

Dear Down,

I am not a clinician, so this isn’t an official diagnosis, but it seems clear that you are suffering from depression.  Part of your depression is likely related to the grief process as a result of quitting smoking, but you’ve experienced some other major losses lately, too.

All of the things you used to like to do that you are now avoiding (like tinkering in your shop) constitute a HUGE loss, and much of your depression is likely related to that.

My Advice:

First, if you were experiencing any symptoms of depression before you quit smoking, do check in with your doctor, and/or take advantage of any counseling provided by your employer for help for dealing with issues related to injury or loss of work.

Apart from that, there are some steps you can take to get your life back.  To avoid feeling overwhelmed, start slowly and just do what you can initially.  As you gather momentum, you’ll find it easier to incorporate more into your life.

1.     Get moving!

You don’t have to leap up and run around the block, but force yourself up off the couch and move your body some.  Shuffle around the house, take a short walk, or find a task that requires you to move your body.  If that seems like too much, start by simply standing in front of the couch and moving your arms and legs for a minute or two the first few times.  Give yourself permission to just do a little at a time, knowing that doing a little now will make it easier to do a little more later as you begin to feel like it.

The body feedback loop can cause your brain to interpret prolonged ‘stillness’ as depression.

And since feeling depressed results in not wanting to move, it becomes a vicious cycle.  To break the cycle, you must change either find a way to ‘feel less depressed’ or find a way to move your body.  Clearly, the second one is the easier way to begin.

If you’re interested in some of the science behind the relationship between these two things, Spark by John J. Ratey is an interesting read.  It’s available at Amazon.

2.     Begin to reclaim your hobbies!

It’s common after people quit smoking to avoid the places, people, and activities that were associated with smoking in order to avoid triggering cravings to smoke.  This is not a bad short-term strategy, but as you’re discovering, it’s a lousy long-term strategy.  After all, most of those things were in your life because you enjoyed them, so you don’t want to give them all up just so you can quit smoking.

Here’s the thing:

The desire to smoke is like a huge dragon, lurking in all those places where you used to smoke.  If you want to stay quit, you can choose to avoid the dragon, but you have to give up all the things you used to enjoy.

Or…

You can prepare to slay the dragon, and then confront him at the moment of your choosing, to ensure that you will be successful.  Once you do that, you get to reclaim all of those parts of your life.

The good news is, it’s not that hard to slay the dragon of desire.

The key is to find a way to experience those things without smoking, even though you know that the first several times you do it, you will want to smoke.

In other words, you prepare to slay the dragon by getting ready to experience the urge to smoke, but putting safeguards in place that will help you avoid smoking.

For instance, you might choose to go tinker in your shop on a day when you’ve arranged for your wife to take the only car, so there is just no way for you to get any cigarettes.  Or you could enlist the help of a friend or family member you can rely on to help you avoid smoking while in the shop that day.  Be creative to come up with a safeguard that works for your situation.

After a few times, you will start to break the association between that activity and smoking, and your desire to smoke there will start to decrease.  Pretty soon, the fun of tinkering in the ship will begin to outweigh the minor inconvenience of an occasional urge to smoke.

The dragon is slowly dying…

In psychological terms, the association of smoking in your shop is a simple form of learning called “classical conditioning.”  Appropriately, the process of slaying the dragon is called “extinction.”

3.     Learn to ‘accept’ the desire in order to release it.

This is a more advanced technique, and it may seem contradictory, but when you’re ready for it, it’s very powerful.  Don’t try this until you feel confident that you can experience a desire to smoke without picking up a cigarette.

You may have intuitively realized this:

The one thing that is more uncomfortable than having an urge to smoke is the anxiety of trying to avoid the desire to smoke.

In other words, trying to avoid urges, trying to escape from the desire to smoke, trying to push away the craving– is actually worse than experiencing the desire to smoke.

You can prove this to yourself by choosing to experience the desire, instead of resisting it. (Let me repeat here: only try this in a situation where you feel confident you will be able to refrain from smoking – You’re going to accept the feeling of wanting to smoke, but you’re still going to refrain from smoking.)

Here’s the technique:

When the urge to smoke comes, don’t push it away or try to distract yourself.  Instead, sit still, close your eyes, and allow it in.  Notice what it feels like in your body:  Is your pulse faster?  Is your brow furrowed or your fist clenched?  What is your breathing like?  Take a minute to notice all the different things that may be going on in your body.

Don’t tell yourself any ‘stories’ about the urge, like why it’s there, or what it ‘means,’ or how much you wish it would go away.  Try for a ‘pure’ experience of just noticing the sensations as they occur.

After experiencing it for a minute or so, choose something to change about it.

If your breathing is shallow, you can choose to take a deep breath, or to consciously relax your facial expression or other parts of your body that you noticed were feeling tense.

Don’t try to make the urge go away – just make the minor changes to your body that you feel like making, and continue to notice the experience until the urge goes away.

For most people, the biggest revelation is that the urge to smoke – if you accept it rather than resist it – isn’t really as painful and scary as we’ve been telling ourselves.

The urge to smoke is NOT a giant dragon as large as your house.

It’s actually fairly small dragon – maybe the size of a dog or cat.

After trying this ‘non-resistance’ technique a few times, you’ll begin to notice that the desire itself starts to diminish.  It’s as if all of the energy that you were putting into resisting the desire was giving the desire power.  Once you take that energy away from it, the power of the urge starts to fade.

Then your experiential system starts to ‘get it,’ and

the dragon shrinks to the size of a fly

– buzzing around you once in awhile, a minor annoyance.  It may distract you as you swat at it, but you’re certainly not going to cross the street to avoid it.

Eventually the urge to smoke goes away altogether, until you find that you haven’t even thought about smoking – for days, weeks, months, then years…

—————————————————————————————————————

Have any of you experienced depression as a result of quitting?  Was there anything that helped you get through it?  How about the non-resistance technique described above for experiencing the urge to smoke – have you tried it?  Feel free to leave a comment to describe your experience.

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