Is smoking an addiction or a habit?
The line that separates habits from addiction is not clear. I have thought about this several times as I’ve begun my journey as a health and wellness coach. Addiction as defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine “is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. Most people with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences”1
Habits are technically defined as “the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day” The Power of Habit
I think what makes the difference between addiction and habits unclear is that perhaps both have to do with complex interactions among the brain circuits, our genetics and our environment. Those complex brain circuits involve things like rewards, motivation, memory and the related circuitry. Perhaps what separates habits from addiction is that with addiction that behavior continues despite harmful consequences.
So, is this all to say that smoking is an addiction and therefore cannot be changed? Not exactly, even the American Society of Addiction Medicine states in its definition of addiction that it is treatable. I’ve written in the past about the psychological and the physiological/biochemical component of smoking which make it hard to quit smoking. However, despite the fact that smoking is considered an addiction, the behaviors that are associated with it are driven by habits. Smoking creates a physical dependence but that physical dependence on nicotine only lasts for 100 hours (approximately 4 days) after the last cigarette. This is why the first 4 days are the hardest on the brave individuals who decides to quit smoking. Conversely, that pain felt during the first 4 days could be why smokers avoid quitting.
To successfully quit smoking, you must come up with an alternative to smoking
So why is it that to successfully quit smoking you must come up with an alternative process? What about having an alternative to smoking that makes it important to make sure you stay smoke free long term?
Because it follows what is known as the Golden Rule of Habit Change; this golden rule states that “if you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same” The Power of Habit.
Do you ever wonder what makes Alcoholic Anonymous so effective at helping alcoholics quit drinking? This, despite the fact that AA has no foundation in science or most of the accepted therapeutic methods that exist.
Part of the reason AA has a high success rate is that it helps alcoholics to come up with a new routine. AA forces people to identify their cues and rewards that encourage their drinking habits but instead of changing those cues and rewards it keeps them the same and helps them come up with new routines.
So, what are those new routines that AA helps alcoholics create? The new routines are built within the system and the twelve steps of AA in the form of meetings and companionship. Most alcoholics drink because it’s a way for them to escape, relax, reduce anxiety, and to reduce the stress of daily life among other things. Through those meetings and companionship AA offers alcoholics this new routine of talking with a sponsor or attending a meeting as a new way of escaping, relaxing, reducing anxiety and reducing stress.
In essence what AA teaches alcoholics are more constructive and healthful ways of dealing with stress and anxiety of daily life.
What alternatives to smoking can you create?
Most people’s habits have occurred for so long they don’t pay attention to what causes it anymoreThe Power of habit by charles duhigg
Below are the two important steps to begin on the path of replacing your smoking habit:
- The first step is to identify what your cues/triggers are that cause you to crave the reward that smoking provides. Describe in detail what triggers your habitual behavior of smoking- don’t ignore this step, this is what is known as awareness training (aka mindfulness) and it is the first step in reversing your smoking habit. Are your triggers stress, boredom, anxiety, joy, happiness, companionship/bonding, etc.?
- The second is step is to develop what is known in habit reversal training as competing responses. Competing responses are the alternatives to smoking, it is the new behavior that will replace your smoking habit. So when your triggers of stress, boredom, joy, happiness, and/or companionship/bonding kick in instead of smoking you practice meditation, you go for a walk or a run, you do breathing exercise, you chew on a piece of nicotine gum, you call up a friend or a family member to talk things out.
Describing this process of behavior change and habit reversal is easy but to implement and accomplish it is a harder task. However, it doesn’t mean that it is not possible. Habits like smoking that have been ingrained in someone’s life for years will require work, self-understanding (of the cravings and rewards), determination and a belief that things will get better.
The Impacts of Group on Belief in Behavior Change
One quick point before I let you go; another important dynamic that makes AA successful is the group aspect of it. Lee Ann Kaskutas, a senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group said “There is something really powerful about groups and shared experiences. People might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief”. The Power of Habit
Joining a group makes the potential for creating change seem more real and attainable.
For most people who overhaul their lives, there are no seminal moments or life-altering disasters. There are simply communities- sometimes of just one other person who makes change believable.The Power of habit by charles duhigg
P.S. if you are considering working with a health and wellness coach as a strategy to help you with replacing your smoking habit, click here to learn more about my coaching style and to see if we would be a good fit together.
Image Credit: Photo by Samuel Clara on Unsplash