Smoking cessation can be a very difficult ordeal. If it weren’t difficult enough to get through the physical addiction, a person also has to deal with the psychological component.
Because smoking is an orally-based activity, it’s easy to turn to other forms of oral replacements, such as snacking or gum chewing, to gratify this desire and make up for the satisfaction smoking may have provided.
Although chewing gum and snacking might be better alternatives to smoking, such replacements can also turn into distressing new, unhealthy, and mindless habits.
Mindfulness-Based Smoking Cessation
There are a lot of new approaches to smoking cessation that are based in mindfulness.
At the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, Dr. Judson Brewer has developed innovative programs integrating mindfulness with addictions, one of which includes a smoking cessation program.
Instead of avoiding the addictive habit, these approaches focus on turning towards it (believe it or not).
The idea is to use the basis of mindfulness, or in other words, present-moment, non-judgmental awareness while engaging in the addictive habit, rather than trying to avoid it or replace it with something else.
Smoking Doesn’t Actually Relieve Stress
Before I explain how this process works, I want to emphasize something that’s important to remember when it comes to smoking and stress relief.
It has been long known that smoking doesn’t actually relieve stress. Instead smoking alleviates withdrawal symptoms from nicotine. This relief from withdrawal feels like stress relief, though it’s actually withdrawal relief (American Psychologist; Parrott, A.C.; 1999).
But here’s the really interesting thought: in order to smoke, a person has to: 1) Stop everything they’re doing 2) Go outside and 3) Breathe deeply (true, they’re breathing smoke, but you get the point).
Imagine what it might be like if everyone: stopped everything, went outside and took deep breaths (without the smoke) for a few minutes, a few times a day. Hmmm. That sounds like meditation!
Cravings & Addictions
So back to mindfulness with addictive habits. Much like eating, smoking has a craving component.
Though addiction to a substance like nicotine is quite different from feelings of addiction to food, cravings are the common thread and they can feel quite strong sometimes.
Normally, we try to resist the craving or replace it. But does that work?
If I told you not to think about a pink elephant, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Of course…a pink elephant.
Similarly, when it comes to cravings, avoidance doesn’t necessarily help. Sometimes we even become afraid of cravings because we have ‘failed’ at resisting them so often. When craving hits, we go through avoidance, resistance, replacement…desperately trying not to think about that “pink elephant”.
So how about this instead: when cravings hit, consider taking a few minutes to simply watch it, knowing that after we watch it one of 3 things will happen: we won’t engage in our habit; we will engage in our habit; or eventually, we can engage in the habit in a different way.
In the meantime, we get to know ourselves a little more by watching this thing we call craving. And maybe by doing so, we’re a little less afraid of our habits.
Getting to Know Yourself Through Cravings
So what if we took a few minutes to tune into that craving thing and ask ourselves some questions:
- What is that…this craving thing?
- Where does it happen in my body?
- What are the sensations of a craving?
- What do the sensations feel like?
- How strong are the sensations?
- What happens when I watch them?
- Do they change?
- How long does it take for the sensations to change?
How do they change – are they stronger, weaker, different?
The idea isn’t to resist or replace, but instead add.
Adding to Addiction
That’s right, add. Being additive is an important part of the program here at Green Mountain at Fox Run and its Women’s Center for Binge and Emotional Eating.
Not only have we been focusing on a non-diet, mindfulness based approach to health for over 40 years, but we’re the only center in the nation that is a women’s only, emotional/binge eating-only center focusing on this notion of being additive as opposed to restrictive.
Instead of trying to take it away (whether the it is smoking or emotional eating), we’ll often suggest adding to it.
In this case, what we’re adding is mindfulness, a gentle, non-judgmental curiosity about cravings. Sometimes interesting discoveries are made when we get curious.
Remember your first science experiment as a child? When you poured vinegar into baking soda, then, with eager curiosity, watched what happened? We might similarly get to know ourselves in this way a little more. It’s a simple, effective way of looking at a part of ourselves and watching what happens.
Getting Curious & Introspective With R.A.I.N.
Getting curious in this way feels empowering, whether we’re looking at smoking habits, or eating behaviors.
The beauty is this concept is the same for smoking cessation as it is for eating behavior. So really, it can be a two-birds-one-stone approach with smoking cessation.
Here’s a step-by-step method for getting curious about cravings. We use a method known as R.A.I.N which was developed by Michele McDonald over 20 years ago.
Tara Brach, a Psychologist, teacher and founder of the Insight Meditation Community in Washington D.C. re-introduced it to the mindfulness community:
Recognize the craving.
Acknowledge it. In other words, looking at the ‘elephant’ (or craving in this case) and say “oh! There you are!”
Allow the craving to be there just as it is.
This is step 1 of curiosity. Instead of turning away from it, simply pause and allow all thoughts, feelings, and sensations to be there, so that we can move into…
Investigate all parts of the craving, with kindness.
Notice thoughts, feelings and sensations, as well as the level of intensity. Ask yourself the questions we mentioned above: What’s happening right now? How am I experiencing this in my body? Where is this happening in my body? Describe the sensations? How intense are they?
Note the experience.
This goes hand-in-hand with the ‘I’ making gentle, non-judgmental notes of what we investigated. In noting, we literally comment on the experience, but remember, the comments are NON-JUDGEMENTAL. For example, perhaps noting: tension, tightness, nervous, hot, intense, light, etc.
So the next time a craving hits for a cigarette or a snack (without feeling hungry), step into the R.A.I.N. and see what happens. You never know what you’ll discover.