Identify Your Triggers to Quit Smoking for Good

After 15 years of smoking, Adrian Diaz Bulibasa decided it was time to quit. “I wanted to have a baby and I didn’t want the health of my future baby to be affected by my choices,” he says.

But quitting was hard.

Bulibasa, who lives in London and is the editor-in-chief of the website bestformyfeet.com, loved smoking and the culture surrounding it. He liked going to restaurants with friends and family, sitting on the terrace, and having a cocktail or coffee with a few cigarettes.

Simply telling himself to quit didn’t work. He needed to figure out where, when, and why he smoked. Soon he realized that most of the time he smoked, it wasn’t because he craved nicotine. “It was because of the habits I’d developed over the years around smoking,” he says.

What Are Smoking Triggers?

Certain places and situations may give you the urge to smoke. You may reach for a cigarette when you go out with friends, when you finish dinner, or when you’re stressed.

These are called triggers. By learning what your triggers are, you can manage them better.

“A big portion of quitting is changing your habits and routines,” says Alma E. Anderson, MA, assistant director of the Arizona Center for Tobacco Cessation. Knowing your triggers helps you drop habits that increase your urges and helps you reinforce new habits to help you quit, she says.

What Are Some Common Triggers?

Your triggers may be tied to how you feel. You may reach for a cigarette when you feel anxious, stressed, bored, happy, lonely, sad, or satisfied.

Some triggers are tied to things you do on a regular basis. These are called pattern triggers. For example, you may want to smoke when you drink alcohol or coffee, watch TV, drive, finish a meal, take a work break, go to bed, or have sex.

Social triggers are tied to being around other people. You may be tempted when you go to a restaurant, party, concert, or big event. Seeing someone smoking or being with people who smoke are common triggers.

Other triggers are tied to your body’s craving for nicotine. You may get an urge to smoke when you smell, taste, or touch a cigarette. Feeling restless or having an urge to do something with your hands or mouth may make you want to smoke.

“You can identify your triggers by thinking through your day and seeing what reminds you of smoking,” Anderson says. Think about how you feel and what you do, and you’ll start to realize which things trigger your urge to smoke.

How to Manage Triggers

Bulibasa knew that to quit, he had to identify his triggers and break the patterns tied to each trigger. He looked closely at his habits and learned that his triggers were restaurants, eating, drinking coffee, drinking alcohol, and having sex.

“On the day I decided to stop smoking, I stopped going to restaurants and bars,” he says. Since he liked to have a cigarette with a cortado coffee on work breaks, he avoided walking near smoking areas at break time.

“Another thing I ended up doing that first year was to quit drinking coffee and alcohol altogether because those were triggers for me to have a smoke,” he says.

He wasn’t ready to give up sex, so he found another way to manage after-sex cravings. “I put the cigarettes somewhere out of reach, like in the kitchen,” he says. It helped not to see the pack right next to the bed.

Bulibasa also had emotional triggers. He smoked when he felt good about finishing a task, when he was under pressure, and when he was bored.

To manage these emotional triggers, he distracted himself with replacement activities like playing a game on his phone or having a handful of popcorn or sunflower seeds. “As soon as I could see the trigger coming, I knew I had to quickly do something about it for about 5-10 minutes,” he says. After that, the desire went away for a few hours.

Anderson suggests following the four Ds to manage your smoking triggers:

  • Delay
  • Do something else
  • Drink water
  • Deep breathing

To manage situational and social triggers, avoid places and situations that make you feel like smoking. For emotional triggers, try talking about your feelings, listening to relaxing music, slow breathing, or exercise. For pattern triggers, try a replacement or physical activity and try to change your routine. Distraction may help with withdrawal triggers.

Bulibasa didn’t manage all his triggers overnight. Over a period of about a year, he changed his habits and gradually quit. He went from smoking 30 cigarettes a day, to 20, 10, 1, and then none.

Over time, Bulibasa used fewer strategies to manage his triggers because he stopped needing them. “I was getting stronger and stronger and the desire to smoke wasn’t that strong anymore,” he says.

It’s been 8 years since he gave up smoking. “I knew that if I managed each day or each week and smoked less than the previous day or week,” he says, “I’d win the battle.”

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