Tobacco: deciphering a dependency

7 min read

Despite a heightened awareness of tobacco's harmful effects, quitting smoking remains a challenging task.

Understanding the reasons behind tobacco dependence allows us to address the root causes comprehensively. This involves not only eliminating tobacco consumption but also becoming aware of our behaviors associated with smoking and changing them. Often, this awareness is the cornerstone of definitive cessation.

Today, there are several proven solutions to help overcome this addiction. The key is to find the most suitable one based on our situation and needs, often linked to our level of dependency and the number of years of smoking.

I will begin by explaining what is meant by physical dependence and psychological dependence, then I will present a range of practices used to overcome them.

Physical dependence.

Nicotine, naturally present in tobacco leaves, makes tobacco highly addictive. When tobacco is consumed, this molecule binds to brain receptors, triggering the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. It is this effect that creates physical dependence.

Quitting smoking can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, depression, and anxiety, making the cessation process challenging. However, understanding these reactions enables the implementation of strategies to alleviate these effects.

Here are some suggestions:
- Maintaining good sleep.
- Reducing stimulants.
- Practicing relaxation or regular physical activity.

The physical effects of dependence vary among individuals but generally diminish within a few weeks after quitting smoking. During this period, an improvement in physical condition is usually observed.

Quitting smoking has immediate positive effects:
- After 24 hours: the risk of a heart attack decreases.
- After 48 hours: nerve endings begin to regenerate, improving taste and smell.
- After 72 hours: breathing becomes easier as the bronchial tubes relax.

Focusing on these immediate benefits can be an excellent motivator to sustain one's commitment.

Psychological dependence.

In addition to physical dependence, tobacco creates psychological dependence. Quitting smoking also means breaking away from all behaviors, habits, and mental associations a person establishes with cigarettes. Unlike physical dependence, which is linked to the body's reaction to nicotine, psychological dependence is rooted in emotional, behavioral, and environmental factors.

Here are some examples illustrating psychological dependence on tobacco:

Associations: Smokers may link cigarettes to specific activities, such as taking a break, socializing, or even relaxing after a meal. These mental associations become triggers that induce smoking, even in the absence of a physical need for nicotine.

Reflex behaviors: Certain gestures, movements, or rituals associated with smoking become automatic. For example, lighting a cigarette while having morning coffee can become a conditioned behavior. The association becomes so strong that these activities automatically trigger the desire to smoke.

Emotional management: Cigarettes can serve as a mechanism to manage stress, anxiety, or other emotions. Smokers may experience emotional reward while smoking, further reinforcing the habit.

Mental reinforcement: The belief that cigarettes bring relief, pleasure, or reward can strengthen psychological dependence by creating an association between smoking and feeling better.

Social environment: Smoking can be integrated into a specific social setting. Interactions with smokers or places where smoking is socially accepted can reinforce psychological dependence.

Psychological dependence can be as powerful as physical dependence and can make quitting smoking challenging.

Fortunately, these mechanisms are well understood today, and there are proven solutions to overcome them.

Severance strategies often aim to break these mental associations, helping individuals develop new behaviors and responses to smoking triggers (e.g., breaks, coffee, environment).

Strategies to quit.

To support smoking cessation, several approaches can be combined for increased effectiveness. It is advisable to discuss these with a healthcare professional who can help determine the most suitable action.

Here is a range of solutions that provide comfort, tranquility, and have shown good results:

Behavior modification therapy: this approach aims to identify triggers associated with smoking and modify behaviors linked to them. For example, it may encourage alternatives to smoking habits, like having a glass of water instead of a cigarette after a meal.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): it helps individuals change their thoughts and beliefs about smoking while teaching techniques to resist cravings and cope with triggers (Nwosu, 2022).

Nicotine replacement therapy: using patches, nicotine gum, or other substitutes can help reduce physical dependence and gradually wean off nicotine while avoiding the harmful effects associated with smoke.

Support groups: cessation programs often offer group support to share experiences and advice with others facing the same challenge. There are also dedicated phone helplines.

Individual counseling: individual sessions with healthcare professionals can help devise personalized strategies to break smoking habits.

Relaxation and stress management techniques: meditation, deep breathing, or other relaxation exercises can help reduce stress and manage cravings.

Avoiding triggers: temporarily avoiding situations or places associated with smoking can help break conditioned behavioral patterns.

Hypnosis can be very effective for some individuals in controlling cravings, reinforcing motivation to quit, and managing associated stress. However, it is important to note that reactions to this method vary, and its effectiveness may differ. Currently, there is still a lack of in-depth research to precisely support the role of hypnosis in the tobacco cessation process.

These strategies aim to weaken the mental associations between smoking triggers and the act of smoking, which can make the quitting and tobacco cessation process easier.

Combining a tobacco cessation approach with psychological support increases the chances of success and often facilitates the quitting process by reducing the discomfort usually associated with this transition.