Zen of the Quit


Reason or Rationalization?


As important as it is to have strong reasons to quit, it’s even more important to look at the reasons you came up with to keep smoking and realize that pretty much all of them are really just rationalizations.

Let’s agree that reasons are based in fact, while rationalizations are not. The reason you don’t step into the road in front of a moving bus is that you know you’re likely to get hurt if you do. That’s a fact. No need to rationalize it.

Rationalizations sound like reasons, but they’re actually just excuses for doing something we want to do that we know we shouldn’t: for example, let’s say you buy a new car when your old car was perfectly fine, instead of putting that money aside in your retirement account or your kids’ college fund: you may rationalize that purchase by saying that the old car was unreliable or unsafe, even though it wasn’t.

Let’s look at one of the more common rationalizations smokers use to keep smoking, and see why it’s a rationalization rather than a reason:

“Smoking calms me down when I’m under stress.”

Actually, the only stress that smoking a cigarette relieves is the stress that smoking the last one created in the first place.

Here’s why:

Every time you put out a cigarette, the nicotine level in your bloodstream immediately starts to fall. It falls by about 50% in the first half-hour and by about 75% after 45 minutes. (This explains why most regular smokers smoke a pack a day or more.) So as soon as you put out a cigarette, you start to go into withdrawal. The lower the level of nicotine in your system, the more intense the withdrawal, and the higher your stress level.

This happens every single time you put out a cigarette, regardless of what else is going on in your life at that moment; whether you’re happy or sad, relaxed or stressed out, full of energy or ready to fall asleep, as soon as you put out a cigarette, your nicotine level starts to fall and you go into withdrawal.

When the nicotine level in your bloodstream gets low enough, and the withdrawal gets intense enough, you start craving a cigarette. When that craving gets strong enough, and the stress of not feeding that craving gets intense enough, you light up another cigarette. When you light up that cigarette and draw the smoking into your lungs, the nicotine level in your bloodstream immediately increases, you come out of withdrawal, your stress level decreases, and for as long as you’re smoking that cigarette, you’re not in withdrawal any more.

But as soon as you put that cigarette out, the cycle starts all over again: the falling nicotine level in your bloodstream triggers withdrawal, the withdrawal triggers a craving, the craving triggers stress, the stress triggers you to light up another cigarette, lighting up that cigarette gives you your “fix” and ends the withdrawal. But then you put out that cigarette and the vicious cycle starts again.

Now add a stressful situation to that vicious cycle: Let’s say you get a call from the school principal about something your teenager did. It’s already been some time since you put out your last cigarette, so you’re already in withdrawal, and your stress level is already elevated. So what do you do? You light up a cigarette. Which reduces your overall stress level, but only to the extent that putting out the last one had already increased it.

Smoking that cigarette does absolutely nothing to relieve the stress caused by that phone call from the principal’s office, but it feels like it does because you can feel that your stress level immediately goes down as soon as you light up. But in reality, if you hadn’t already created that stress by putting out your last cigarette, smoking would not have changed your stress level at all.

Think about it: if smoking was really so good at relieving stress, why don’t non-smokers automatically reach for a cigarette when they feel stressed?

More about this as we go on.

(If you're feeling a bit lost, it may be helpful to go back to the first post and follow along in order.)

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