Quitting Smoking by Cutting Down: 3 Basic Tools for a Gentler Process

A ton of research shows that the most effective way to quit smoking is to just go cold turkey. But stopping all at once can be particularly hard for people with chronic illness, because the physical and psychological impacts are a huge body slam.

If you have a chronic illness with pain and fatigue, like an autoimmune disease that already makes you feel like you have the flu, the flu-like feeling of smoking withdrawals can feel like too much. If you are struggling through depression or anxiety treatment, the intense spike in psychological symptoms can make it seem like quitting is harmful instead of helpful.

And, even though the physical nicotine withdrawal symptoms only last about 3 days (hence the standard advice to just quit all at once and get past those), the brain changes with addiction. It takes 2-4 weeks for most smokers to start to feel better, and a month can seem like an intolerable eternity to folks who are already taxed by underlying conditions.

Personally, the last time I quit successfully 11 years ago, I noticed it got better in waves: much better after a week, much better after a month, much better after a season, and much better after a year. But, for me, the first month is a doozy. And now that my diseases have progressed, the first week cold turkey is simply too much to allow me to stay with it. After failing 8 times in 3 months to quit all at once (cold turkey, with various types of nicotine replacement, by reading Alan Carr, and with my doctor’s and therapists’s support), I started to feel hopeless.

I also started to fear that I was teaching myself to STAY a smoker by developing a smoking crisis cycle: getting very motivated to quit, experiencing intolerable withdrawal effects, getting scared of the quitting experience, and going back to smoking.

And yet, I have ischemic changes to the white matter in my brain, so I cannot keep smoking either.

I decided to try cutting back, in spite of all of the articles I’ve read saying that cutting back doesn’t work because each cigarette becomes “too precious.” As logical as it sounds to quit cold turkey, I had to accept that it wouldn’t work best for my body, and start to get creative about what could work.

Which tools?

I found 3 tools that have worked well for me, to cut down quickly from about a pack a day to 5 a day. And my confidence is going up instead of down, so I can see that I’ll go from 5 to 1 to 0 in no time.

(1) The basic timer!

Since most of us carry our phones 24/7, we have a timer on us at all times.

When you have a smoke, set your timer for a manageable break between cigarettes.

Don’t start with a longer period of time than you can be successful with, even if it’s just 5 minutes!

For me, it was starting with 1 hour at a time.

As I learned to become very comfortable with letting an hour elapse, I gradually increased my timer to 90 minutes, 2 hours, 4 hours, etc.

If the timer goes off and I’m not craving a smoke yet, I don’t have one. But then later when I do, I just set the timer again.

Do I have cravings during my “off smoking” times? Sure. But they are so much more manageable when I can just peek at my timer and say, “Ok, about 3 more hours. What can I redirect my attention to for this short period?”

Thinking about redirecting my attention for the rest of my life is overwhelming, especially if I’m already feeling overwhelmed by symptoms of my disease, but redirecting my attention towards something healing for a short time is not only doable, I begin to teach myself new habits of pleasant or healing things to do instead of smoking.

Hands down, the timer element has been the most helpful part of this process, but here are two more key tools.

(2) LIVESTRONG MyQuit Coach

There are a lot of apps for quitting, but this is the one for cutting back.

It’s free, so it’s easy to check out the features for yourself, but one of the best things this app does is allows you to enter a time period for how long you want to take to quit, and then gives you a weekly schedule for how many you’ll have each day in the process.

For me, the timer function is really the main way I get the number down, but also logging the times I do smoke keeps me conscious of what I’m doing and allows me to see, over time, how well I’m doing in my progress.

It has other functions, like “community,” which may be helpful to some, but I like this app mostly because it’s simple, quick, and stays out of my way, so that I can really focus my attention AWAY from smoking and away from the quitting process, and TOWARDS the new habits I’m developing to replace cigarettes.

(3) The Shift Necklace

If you take one look at a $115 breath control necklace and think, “Well, that’s ridiculous,” I wouldn’t blame you.

The Shift Necklace, advertised for anxiety, seemed pretty obnoxious to me when I first saw it floating around social media about a year ago.

But I couldn’t help but notice that the size and shape seemed much like a cigarette, and I knew I was looking for a physical tool to help replace my hand-to-mouth habit, as well as the more relaxing deep breathing I tend to do while smoking, but I didn’t want to use a replacement like vaping, candy, etc., etc., that might just compound my situation.

So, I decided to just give it a try, and holy moly.

Basically ALL this little guy makes you do is breathe out more slowly. You take a normal inhale and then breathe out through the tube, which gives resistance. It slows your exhale, and that doesn’t sound like much, but after 3 breaths in a row, the muscles of my entire body completely relax. If I do it for several minutes, it feels like I’m going to fall asleep.

Their website has a lot of info about how and why they claim it works, but for me, it just does. I use it randomly while watching TV or whatever, just to keep my baseline relaxation in a good place, or when cravings hit to at least take the panic out of the situation and get back into my head.

The Shift might not be the exact tool for you, but I think it’s key to add in some kind of physical replacement that feels like it helps with whatever your biggest annoyance is in not having the physical object of the cigarette.

That’s not all the tools

Certainly there are a million other tools and tricks you could put together to make a plan that is responsive to your own style, but keeping it simple is working for me.

I’ll add that these few other things certainly don’t hurt:

  • Make smoking boring. Don’t smoke while holding your phone or doing anything stimulating. The point of cutting back is to let your brain heal gradually, and a huge part of that healing is bringing the balance of brain chemistry back to nonsmoking.
  • Make smoking uncomfortable. Don’t sit in a comfy chair and get all relaxed, enjoying your cigarette after having waited for your timer to go off. Service the addiction at the stage in the process you’re in, but remember the point is to move towards building in ways to enjoy the time when your timer is on, rather than enjoying the times when you’re smoking.
  • If you like it, take a lot of CBD. I personally like Rosebud brand, especially now that they’ve started to make an amazing chocolate. For me, starting the day at a nice, relaxed baseline gives me a real leg up.
  • If you’re satisfied after a few puffs, just put it down. The addiction is sometimes just so much about having that “permission” to light up. But the less you actually take in, the better for your health, and potentially the quicker you heal your mind into realizing you don’t actually need to be smoking at all.
  • If you can exercise, get all the exercise possible. Right now I’m in a very difficult flare, so my idea of vigorous exercise is taking a few steps and doing a few stretches, but the moment I can do more, I do. Exercise helps more than anything else to heal the brain, it certainly makes you feel better, and it’s a healthy habit to put into your “off times” when not smoking, to start moving towards a lifestyle of healing.

Fear of Quitting Smoking

My doctor gave me a month to get my blood pressure down.

She asked me to lose 5 pounds and go on a low-sodium diet.

I’ve lost 4.2 pounds and I cut salt from my diet, but my blood pressure is still high.

Qardio

And the reason it’s high is because I’m smoking.

It’s amazing and embarrassing to admit that I smoke, in 2020. I don’t know anyone who smokes, and I keep it secret from all of my friends.

I only started up again about a year ago, after having quit for 11 years.

About 4 months ago, I made several concerted efforts to stop, but the feeling was too overwhelming.

When I research the process of quitting smoking, I see people—mainly health professionals—describe quitting as “extremely difficult,” which it is, but I don’t see many realistic or nuanced descriptions of what quitting feels like for me, and I wonder if it feels similarly for everyone.

Quitting smoking is painful. It’s physically painful and emotionally painful.

I don’t know if the pain I experience when I try to quit is more pronounced because of the way Fibromyalgia seems to make all pain more pronounced, but the sensation is flu-like for me.

If it was just flu-like, I could handle it, but for some reason, when I feel that wave of physical and psychological pain, I start to panic, and my cognition and anxiety really spirals downward.

I often get into the totally baffling headspace where I start to think that I’m putting myself in danger by NOT smoking, because the physical discomfort becomes so distressing.

I typically make it about 4 hours when I try to quit, although I can go 12-16 hours without smoking if I’m not under pressure to abstain.

Since my high blood pressure and high heart rate are actually serious, I am going to need to fess up to my doctor at my appointment in 4 days, and I know the chain of events that are going to unfold from there.

She’s going to insist I stop, of course. It’s going to be serious.

And since I trust her and we work well together, I’m going to have to do it.

Maybe she’ll prescribe Chantix or something, and maybe those will help.

I could say what I’m “supposed” to say and be like: well, this is so positive!! I’ll have motivation to add one more productive dimension to my body journey towards health, and I’m already proving to myself that I’m more than strong enough to do this.

These are true, but I’m not giving these Shaq x JCPenney vibes at all.

I’m terrified.

I feel out of control because I’m about to be held accountable for something I’m genuinely not sure I can do, even though I’ve done it before in the past.

I’m scared that I’m going to lose my grip on myself and feel sick and tired and crazy for a few weeks.

One completely amazing level, I have to admit, is that I’ve come to a level of maturity where I can see that I must face facts and be honest with my doctor. I’m pretty impressed with myself that I’m not even calling to put the appointment off for a few weeks.

I’m not a happy camper today, but my little chihuahua just crawled into my lap as I’m writing this, and maybe if I can’t motivate myself to feel good about doing it for myself at this point, I could do it for the little guy. He’s only 2, and chihuahuas live a million years, so he needs me around.