For years, it has been said that recovery from nicotine addiction can be broken into two different stages, the physiological stage of chemical withdrawal and the psychological stage of breaking the habit. This notion is somewhat incomplete.
Addiction is now considered a chronic brain disease and not simply a habit. Whilst cravings may be triggered psychologically, the disease itself is entirely physiological.
The cravings ex smokers feel during the healing process can be physically observed, physically measured and physically predicted. They are the result of neural activity in the brain and weaken as neural connections physically break down.
The Basic Physiology of Cravings and the Healing Process.
If you are not familiar with Neurons and Neural Activity, please read the Know Your Addiction section.
There are several areas in the brain that become hijacked by nicotine addiction. One such area is the Striatum.
The Striatum, a part of the Basal Ganglia, is linked to the reward centre of our brain and becomes active when we feel pleasure. It is an area central to the learning of new habits and basic decision making.
The Striatum is also one of the first major areas within the brain to be hijacked by nicotine addiction. Certain neural networks within the Striatum are triggered by the chemical dopamine, which is released into the brain by neurons receptive to nicotine.
The release of dopamine produces feelings of both pleasure and satisfaction. Feelings that serve to reward positive behaviours which enhance our ability to survive.
Over time, the Striatum begins to see nicotine and the cigarettes that provide it, as being critical to our survival and in turn, creates habits that will help ensure a constant flow of nicotine into the brain.
Nicotine addicts not only become almost permanently hungry for nicotine, they instinctively seek it. To make matters worse, neural connections and pathways associated with nicotine addiction spread into areas of the brain that control factors such as emotion and stress.
When triggered, these neurons will also initiate a craving.
Addiction is a physical, neurological condition. Every time you successfully defeat a crave, you physically cause neural connections associated with nicotine addiction to weaken and break down.
A significant amount of healing is achieved during the first 6-12 weeks, when large numbers of neural connections and nicotine receptors connected to the Basal Ganglia metabolize.
During these early stages of chemical withdrawal, cravings are at their worst. As time passes, this area of the brain significantly heals and ex smokers will start to notice more pleasure coming from natural triggers such as food, physical activity and life in general.
They no longer feel a constant hunger for the chemical nicotine.
However, once the chemical dependence to nicotine is overcome, there are still areas of the brain that remain hijacked by nicotine addiction. These areas will still need exposure to a large number of environmental and behavioral triggers in order to heal.
For example, neural pathways linking emotional stress to cigarettes and nicotine consumption will only physically break down as the ex smoker overcomes cravings associated with those particular triggers.
Work with Your Cravings and Influence Your Own Healing Process.
Because we can physically control our environment, we have the potential to deliberately influence our cravings. We can physically choose when we want to attack various individual triggers.
Of course, there will always be triggers that are beyond our control, such as emotions that come from various unpredictable life events. However, for the most part we do have the opportunity to take control.
The main thing to remember is that each and every time we encounter a trigger and win, the brain heals just that little bit more. Because, neural connections associated with the addiction weaken as we do so.
Neuroplasticity is the term used to explain the brains ability to create new neural connections and break down old ones, such as those that are a result of addiction. This You Tube clip shows Neuroplasticity in action.
Five Tips For Managing Your Cravings.
1. Take time off work and focus all of your efforts on healing the neural regions dependent on nicotine and overcoming chemical withdrawal.
Your goal is to quit smoking, not quit smoking while keeping up appearances.
When you first quit, the brain undergoes enormous physiological changes due to the abstinence from nicotine or reduction of its intake. Take the time to focus on healing areas of the brain chemically dependent on nicotine.
Do not risk your quit and your life, for the sake of appeasing employers or peers. In reality, you are doing them a favor.
Once confident, you can then attack areas of the brain active during stress, problem solving, completing tasks and feeling emotions.
Those on NRT and Medication should also consider taking a couple of days to adjust.
2. Avoid socializing until after the chemical dependency is broken or substantially weakened.
There are many triggers, such as having a beer or hanging out with other smokers, that will require a concentrated effort to overcome. Approach these environments one at a time and only when you feel confident and prepared to do so.
When you do attack these triggers, you will likely find yourself thinking almost non stop about smoking for the first 20-30 minutes. After that it gets easier.
Try to mix things up by holding conversations with NON SMOKERS and exploring new social environments.
3. Change or mix up your daily routine.
If you regularly drank coffee or tea with a smoke in the morning, consider switching to eating a regular breakfast and drinking juice instead of a hot drink. Avoid coffee until you have overcome the chemical dependence.
When you are confident, consider taking steps to re introduce the things you enjoyed.
For example, when you first introduce coffee you will crave. Having beaten the chemical withdrawals, you will be able to focus all of your efforts on healing the particular area of the brain that is influencing the crave. The more often you attack this trigger, the quicker it will break down.
4. Use dopamine inducing sweets to help you attack habitual and emotional craves.
When addiction took over the Striatum, it ruthlessly created intense habitual triggers to smoke during everyday activities and emotional experiences. Heavily addicted smokers will light up when they are driving, taking a break, talking on the phone, finishing a meal, waiting for the bus and relaxing after a hard days work.
They are also likely to “chain” smoke during negative emotional experiences. Nearly all activities and emotions a smoker experiences are linked to smoking via neural connections that will need to break down.
To assist this, try introducing sweets that will give you a small dopamine hit as a reward. Small lollipops like Chupa Chups can be very effective as they also involve hand to mouth movement. Of course, speak to your doctor first, about sugar intake and how it may affect you personally, as there are risks associated with high sugar diets.
5. Exercise daily.
The brain loves physical activity. Ex smokers go through a long period of neural change as the ex smoker breaks down old neural connections and creates new positive and healthy ones.
Exercise stimulates something called the brain-derived neurotrophic factor which contributes to the creation and strengthening of new neural connections. If you exercise as part of your recovery, you will enhance the effectiveness of the healing process.
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor – You Tube Clip.