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The challenge of smoking cessation

Monday, March 26, 2012

Why does anyone still smoke? Just about everywhere you go nowadays you see signs that clearly state that smoking is not allowed. Yet despite all of the sanctions, taxes, peer pressure, and with over 440,000 deaths every year in the US, there remain millions of hardcore tobacco users who just don’t seem to want or be able to stop this habit.

Clearly, the fact tobacco products cause cancers of the lung, esophagus, larynx, and oral cavity should motivate any sane person to immediately stop smoking cigars, cigarettes, chewing tobacco and smoking pipes. However, there are still those who display a false bravado as they claim that you cannot live forever. Others seem to have developed a mindless habit that requires them to have tobacco problems. Some tell me that they smoke due to stress or boredom. Others say that it is part of their need to socialize as they often enjoy the camaraderie of their fellow smokers. I’ve even had one person tell me that she smokes because she considers it the only thing that she “does for herself.” Truly, this is very sad – especially as, like many of my clients, I have lost more than one relative in the past few years due to smoking-related illnesses.

Regardless, people do finally make it to my office for appointments regarding their desire to stop smoking or using smokeless tobacco. As part of the session I always ask them what motivated them to stop now. Obviously, they have been very well aware of the health issues for quite some time. They are also very well aware of the social stigma that smokers increasingly receive from non-smokers, the exorbitant monthly costs, and the fact that they smell like a stale ashtray. Yes, they know all of this without me ever mentioning it. This still is rarely enough to get them to change their ways. It seems that somehow finally realizing that they will not be around to see their children or grand children grow up is normally the most important motivation that gets a hardened tobacco user to finally seek help.

Once this or another transformational motivation is realized by the tobacco user, they almost always try to do it on their own. Many succeed this way – at least for awhile. When they finally give up and make an appointment, I just about always notice a few things that clearly tell me why they failed. What I notice is that they constantly keep referring to their efforts as “trying to quit.” Ironically, the word trying implies failure and in modern society the word ‘quitting’ just about always symbolizes a lack of success. Together these two concepts are not what a person who wants to change their life needs to have in their vocabulary.

Add to this the fact that negative self-talk increases a poor self-image – especially once clients see themselves as failures – and that they follow a defective strategy. The problem is that they are focusing on the wrong thing. The more that you think about what you don’t want, the stronger you make it in your mind. The late Canadian psychologist called this “use it or loose it.” What he found is that when you repeat a certain thought pattern, it becomes increasingly hardwired in your brain. So, the more that you think about your smoking habit, the stronger it becomes. I sometimes call this phenomenon, “Feeding the weeds and complaining about them.” What is needed is completely different strategy.

To successfully kick the smoking habit – which 90% of my clients actually do after one session – they want to lose the hold that tobacco has on them. As Hebb would say, they want to lose it. By ignoring their smoking habit, the associated neural networks in their brains simply begin to wither through disuse. However, this is only first part of the story. To make this work, they need to have a replacement. Yes, they need to literally grow a new set of extremely strong neural pathways. This is what I call the “substitution effect.”

To start moving down this more productive pathway, I ask my clients a very simple question. “If this was three months from now and I was to run into at the mall, at your place of work, or at church, how would your life have changed since you stopped smoking?” I may also say, “What will I notice that is different about you?” The problem here is that they too often go back to their tradition of negativity and start by saying things like, “I won’t be as sick” or “I won’t stink as bad.” I immediately check this tendency and get them to re-phrase their comments in the positive such as, “I am healthy” and “I smell good.” However, that is not enough. In order to get their brain and to respond more efficiently, I want them to turn up the volume. Therefore, I am not happy until I hear them say, “My health is fantastic” and “I smell great!” What I am looking for is six to ten statements that I can use later during a hypnosis session.

Although once I get a person to stop obsessing about the negative and begin committing to a newer, better version themselves, I feel that most of the healing has already taken place. Nevertheless, a formal hypnosis session – which generally lasts about 15 minutes – is a great way to intensify the transformative process. This is because it is one of the best ways to reduce neurological resistance to change – which is part of our personality that maintains stability in our lives – and compels the largely reactive mind and body to change. Once a client has experienced this in my office, I teach them a very simple self-hypnosis routine, which I strongly encourage them to use at least once a day for as long as they can.

I look at smoking as a habit not much different than the multitude of behavioral patterns that rule our lives. Some of these patterns – which are also the basis of our personality – have either out-lived their usefulness and/or represent a threat to our lives and the safety of others. As such they need to be released so that their influence no longer rules our lives. I do this by helping clients move from negativity, failure, and their obsession with there destructive habits as they quickly move toward a better life. I have found that it is not about trying or quitting. Rather, it is all about starting a life of their dreams.






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