I’ve stopped smoking now for 4 days and am finding it really hard today. I’ve got a headache and feel sick – is it because I’ve stopped smoking? How long do cravings last?
In a Funk
A headache is one of the classic nicotine withdrawal symptoms, so it’s quite likely this is because you have just quit, especially if you quit cold turkey. I’m not sure about the ‘feeling sick.’ If you mean you feel nauseous and achey, you may simply have the flu. If you’re referring to a general feeling of malaise – listlessness, respiratory issues, etc., those may well be withdrawal symptoms. The good news is, these symptoms will pass, generally within a few days if not sooner, provided you don’t return to smoking. (Intermittent cigarettes may feel like they temporarily relieve some of the withdrawal, but in the long run it just makes them go on for longer.)
You also ask ‘how long the cravings will last.’ The answer to that question is much more complicated. First, it’s worth nothing that withdrawal symptoms and ‘cravings’ are very much different processes, produced by entirely different body systems.
Withdrawal symptoms are a function of the physical addiction to nicotine, and will pass with no particular effort from you, as long as you stay away from nicotine.
“Cravings” can be a result of both the physical addiction to nicotine, and the psychological dependence on smoking. The physical addiction portion of the craving is likely already done for you, since you’re on Day 4 of not smoking. (It generally takes the body about three days to flush the nicotine from your system.)
However, most people experience cravings or urges to smoke long past the three-day mark. These desires to smoke are part of the psychological dependence on smoking, which is much more pervasive and difficult to eliminate than the physical addiction.
How long these cravings last depend in part on how you deal with them. So here’s some advice around that:
The very WORST thing you can do is give in to a craving and have a smoke. This is like feeding a dog from the table, just once. You know what happens, right? The dog will keep coming back to the table, hoping to be fed again.
An improvement on this approach is to distract yourself when you have a desire to smoke – this is the advice you normally get, and is certainly better than giving in. And if you continue to do this, the urges will eventually go away. Go for a walk, do a crossword puzzle, turn the radio up and dance and sing along… Whatever you need to do to get through it.
A more direct approach is to begin to look at where the desire is coming from to begin with. What triggered it? If you used to smoke when something stressful happened, when that happens now, you’ll have a strong urge to smoke. Instead of simply distracting yourself, consider learning and using techniques for actually dealing with stress.
If you used smoking to relax or reward yourself in the past, you’ll have strong urges under those conditions. Thoughtfully (and perhaps in advance?) choose some healthier ways to reward yourself, and employ those instead.
Finally, you can ‘examine the urge.’ When you get an urge to smoke, stop for a moment, sit quietly, and scan your body – what does it actually feel like? For instance, some folks will say they ‘feel like they’re going to explode’ or ‘feel like they’re going crazy.’ Instead, break this down into bodily sensations: Are your hands clenched? Pressure in your head or chest? Shoulders tight? Notice the body sensations, and allow yourself to feel them directly for a moment, instead of ‘interpreting’ them. Then, if you can ‘fix’ any of them (for instance, by consciously relaxing your shoulders) feel free to do so.
The urge will pass in 2-3 minutes in any case, but sometimes looking the ‘demon’ in the face can help make it less scary and help the cravings fade away more quickly. In contrast, trying to ‘avoid’ the urge or pushing it away can actually give it energy.
In my program, I walk folks through these techniques step-by-step. If you’re still smoke-free, the program may not be for you, since it starts with a two-week tapering-and-switching strategy to minimize withdrawal symptoms. But for anyone who is still looking to quit, it may be very helpful.
In any case, I wish you the very best of luck – hang in there!