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How to Stay Relaxed Without Smoking

This post is part of a myth-busting series about quitting smoking.  Good news: You do NOT have to give up your ability to relax or deal with stress!

Dear Advisor,

If I quit smoking, I don’t know how I’m going to be able to relax – I can’t handle even the thought of a stressful situation without a cigarette.


Stressed and still smoking

Dear Stressed,

Most smokers share a sense of anxiety about dealing with stressful events without smoking.  In fact, this may be one of the most common reasons people go back to smoking after they’ve quit.

I’ve got some really good news for you, though.  It’s not only possible to deal with stressful situations without smoking, it’s actually easier, once you create the correct circumstances for yourself.

Let’s look at what happens when you, as a smoker, experience stress:

First, your body’s sympathetic nervous system kicks in – that’s your “fight or flight” response.  Physiologically, what happens is this:  Your heart rate and perspiration increase.  Blood flow to your muscles increases, your pupils dilate, and your muscles tense up in preparation to fight or flee.

One side effect of all of this physiological action is that the nicotine in your bloodstream is rapidly flushed out, quickly dropping your nicotine level.

You know what happens when your nicotine level drops too low, right?  Yup, a classic nicotine fit.  For most people, the symptoms of a nicotine fit are very similar to symptoms of stress– you feel tense, anxious, irritable, and maybe even dizzy or shaky.

So you light up, take a deep drag, and immediately you feel some relief.  It feels like the cigarette is “calming you down.” You’re still stressed out, but not as bad as a few moments ago.

What’s actually happening there is that the cigarette is relieving the acute nicotine withdrawal symptoms you were experiencing.  The regular stress from the event itself it still there, and of course you still have to deal with whatever it is that’s stressing you out (angry boss, annoyed spouse, screaming child, unpaid bills…) But because the nicotine withdrawal symptoms have been relieved, you feel a little less stressed than you did a few moments ago.

There are two very important points to get from this:

First, understand that stressful situations tend to be doubly stressful for smokers because they are often coupled with symptoms of acute nicotine withdrawal.  In other words, if you weren’t a smoker, stressful events would actually be less stressful because you wouldn’t be having a nicotine fit on top of them.

Second, the inevitable result of repeating this circumstance over and over is that the experiential part of your brain has learned that cigarettes help you deal with stress – even though they really don’t.  Teaching your brain to “unlearn” this faulty association is one of the major challenges of quitting successfully.

The reality is, you can quit smoking and be more relaxed than ever.  But I realize you may not yet be convinced of that, because I know that “undoing” that experiential learning requires more than just logical arguments.  Instead, to unlearn the association between cigarettes and dealing with stress, you must look at your own experiences, and even create new ones.   If you’re willing to give that a shot, read on…

Look at Your Own Experiences

Use the questions below to consider whether your personal experience supports the idea that smoking may actually INCREASE stress in your life rather than decreasing it.

  1. Have you ever had a nicotine fit?  What symptoms do you experience when it happens?  Is the experience stressful?
  2. Do you ever use cigarettes as a pick-me-up?  If so, how do you explain them operating in two opposite ways – both as a pick-me-up and to calm you down?
  3. Do you believe that smoking a cigarette during a stressful event would feel calming to someone who has never smoked?
  4. Are there other ways that cigarettes cause stress in your life?  If you can’t think of any, consider these scenarios and see if any of them apply to you.

Create a New Experience for Yourself – Train Your Brain

The second thing you must do to “unlearn” the faulty association between cigarettes and dealing with stress is to re-train your brain by creating a different experience for it to process.

So far your brain has had a lot of experiences where it felt like the cigarette was calming you down/helping you deal with stress.  Now you know that it was mostly just relieving the nicotine craving, but your experiential brain still “believes” that cigarettes relax you.  In fact, this is such a strong belief that months after quitting, a stressful event can still leave you craving a cigarette.

To combat that experiential learning, you have to actually DO something different when stress happens.

To “unlearn” that faulty association, you have to provide your brain with the experience of relieving stress by doing something other than smoking that results in your body feeling more relaxed. 

relaxedThe very easiest thing you can do is a simple deep breathing exercise – you can do it anywhere, and it works for most people.   If you prefer, you can try a muscle relaxation exercise, or one of several other relaxation techniques that are simple, free, and that you can do almost anywhere.

You may think these are too simple to make a difference, but I encourage you to try them to find out for yourself.  Choose whichever ones appeal to you and practice using them regularly for two weeks, then step back to assess the effects. 

Start Now.

The great news is, you can start re-training your brain right now, whether you’ve quit smoking or not.  It will work even better after you’ve quit and eliminated that nicotine-fit-relief component, but you can absolutely begin training your brain for a different method of stress relief even before you quit, and it will make your next quit that much easier.

Oh, and one more piece of good news.  These stress reduction techniques?  Once you’ve quit, they’ll actually work way better than smoking a cigarette ever did, because they actually help relieve stress rather than just satisfying a craving.  You get to feel relaxed, shrug off stress, and be smoke-free.

Your new life starts now.  Don’t wait.


I invite you to share in the comments which techniques you’ve tried, and what seems to work best for you.


{ 3 comments… add one }

  • G Pen Vapor Trial September 29, 2014, 7:17 AM

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  • Faraz October 18, 2015, 5:29 AM

    Shawn,I like your vid and your honesty but, detpsie the fact that the study was about nicotine users, were any of them non-smokers (and for how long?)?? Smoking is bad no matter what. It is bad when you are healthy and yes, bound to be worst if you are sick. I would still like to see raw data about non-smoking nicotine users alone. Just a thought

  • HLM January 29, 2019, 6:15 AM

    I know a woman who actually started sucking her thumb in public (she had previously done it when going to sleep and through the night) to stop smoking. Yes, an adult thumb sucker. Her motivation to stop smoking was so great that she easily withstood the inevitable social stigma. Well, it worked for her. I wonder how many smokers would have even started smoking if thumb sucking was socially acceptable.

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