(10) Living With Cravings: How Mindfulness Can Help You Quit Smoking
Cigarette smoking is responsible for 1 out of every 5 deaths in the United States, making it the leading cause of preventable death and disease.1 Unfortunately, today’s smokers are more highly nicotine-dependent than ever, which makes quitting a constant uphill battle against intense and unrelenting urges to smoke, all the while enduring intense withdrawal symptoms.2
Despite how difficult quitting smoking can be, nearly 7 out of every 10 smokers want to quit. While the task can seem daunting, it is possible – since 2002, former smokers outnumber current smokers.3
So what makes a quit attempt successful? For smokers who go about it alone, without medication or the guidance of an established program, only 4% to 7% will be successful.4 For those who participate in a smoking cessation program, such as the American Lung Association’s Freedom from Smoking program or telephone-based programs known as Quit-lines, the success rate hovers around 13%.5
But here is the shocking news – according to a systematic review released online this April, Mindfulness Training is nearly twice as effective as traditional smoking cessation programs, with 25% of participants remaining abstinent.
So why is Mindfulness Training effective? In a Psychology Today article, leading researcher on mindfulness and smoking cessation Dr. Judson Brewer suggests that it is because standard treatments only focus on the surface level, whereas Mindfulness Training really gets to the root of the problem. 6
While traditional smoking cessation methods involve avoiding triggers or using substitutes, these actions only serve to avoid or dull the craving. However, this does not work in the long-term, because what we resist persists.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, is about paying a nonjudgmental attention to really examine the craving, to accept this moment as it is, and to be compassionate with yourself in all moments.
By teaching individuals to notice and pay attention to their emotional states and their cravings in this manner, they learn to ride them like a wave and let them pass. They learn to choose to be mindful of the moment, rather than instinctively and impulsively acting upon their cravings.
So how does mindfulness affect cigarette cravings? An article published in the Drug and Alcohol Dependence Journal found that after undergoing Mindfulness Training, participants no longer acted upon their cravings – despite experiencing them just as frequently as they did before the program.
Furthermore, the article found that mindfulness home practice significantly predicted reduced smoking behavior, even after controlling for initial craving and cigarette use. In fact, every day the participants meditated meant 1.2 fewer cigarettes, and every day they were mindful with their cravings and in everyday activities meant 1.52 fewer cigarettes.
So what aspect of mindfulness makes it so successful? The authors found that the nonjudging aspect of mindfulness uniquely predicted better odds of remaining abstinent up to 6.5 months post-quit, even after controlling for demographics and dependence. Of those who were the most judgmental of their inner experience, at 3 weeks 23% remained abstinent and 6.5 months later only 4.5% were still abstinent from smoking. As for those who were the least judgmental of their inner experience, 54% remained abstinent from smoking at week 3 and 23% continued to remain abstinent 6.5 months later.
So what does all of this mean? Mindfulness Training for smoking cessation is nearly twice as successful as traditional programs. How is this? By teaching participants to be present with their suffering and cravings, they learn to ride them out instead of impulsively acting upon them. By teaching people not to judge their internal experience, they learn to accept their cravings and to stay present with them. Most importantly, they learn that it is so okay to suffer – that we do not always need to assuage our discomfort and cravings. They learn to simply be with this present experience, without labeling it as good or bad… but to just let it be the way it is.