In a way, going "cold turkey" is the most popular way to quit smoking. Most smokers try this strategystopping all at once without the help of medication, nicotine replacement methods, or any formal therapyon their first attempt to give up cigarettes. But only about 3% to 10% are actually able to kick the habit without help.
"It is like tightrope-walking without a net," says Thomas Glynn, director of cancer science and trends at the American Cancer Society. "It is natural to want to try to quit independently. Most people think they can handle quitting on their own, but they typically underestimate how powerful nicotine dependence really is."
Why is it so hard to quit cold turkey?
Most smokers are both physically and psychologically addicted to cigarettes. As a result, when they give up smoking, their bodies experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, insomnia, and depression, which can last up to three months.
Medication or over-the-counter aids like nicotine patches or gums help to mitigate these effects, and can therefore double or even triple your chance of success. But when you quit cold turkey, there is nothing in your body to serve as a buffer for withdrawal symptoms.
This is one reason why smokers who quit abruptly are more likely to fall off the wagon. "The withdrawal symptoms were unbearable," says Evan Rabinowitz, 28, from Brooklyn, N.Y., who has tried to quit cold turkey four times. "I became incredibly agitated and irritable every time I tried to quit."
It's important to remember, however, that every smoker is differentand some may find it more manageable to stop smoking without any help. Some think it is easier to deal with acute withdrawal than it is to put up with more mild symptoms for an extended period of time. Others say that weaning themselves off cigarettes with a nicotine patch or gum teases them and they prefer a more black-and-white approach.
Experts say chances of success depend on several factors, not just a person's willpower. The extent of your addiction, your daily habits and routines, and the amount of support you get from friends and family can all have a big effect. "It really depends on your personality," says Norman Edelman, MD, chief medical officer at the American Lung Association. "What works for one person doesnt necessarily work for someone else. If you are macho and think you can tough it out, then give it a try. If it doesnt work, try another approach."
Is there an upside to quitting cold turkey?
Flying solo may not be the most successful way to quit, but it does have certain advantages. It takes less time and less work than going to counseling sessions, keeping appointments, and digging deep into the emotional and mental issues behind your smoking habit.
The biggest upside for many smokers is that it is free. That was certainly why Rabinowitz decided to give it a try. "One of the primary motivations for quitting has been the financial cost of smoking," he says. "I am not inclined to try expensive cessation aids such as patches or medication."
Tips to help you quit
If you do decide to quit without any outside help, that doesn't mean you shouldn't at least have a plan. In fact, one of the reasons why unaided attempts fail so often, Glynn says, is because most smokers decide to quit on the spur of the moment or without adequate planning. "Quitting smoking is a process," he adds. "Cold-turkey quits would be much more successful if smokers prepared ahead of time."
If you think you may want to try quitting cold turkey, there are some things you can do to boost your chances of success:
- Have a plan. Decide on a quit day and get rid of any items that remind you of smokinglike lighters and ashtraysahead of time. Inform your friends and family that you are going to quit and ask for their encouragement.
- Switch it up. Change your routine. If you always smoke when you go out with a certain group of friends, take a break from themor at least from activities related to smokinguntil your withdrawal symptoms subside.
- Keep your mouth busy. Experts say that keeping your mouth occupiedwith sugarless gum, cinnamon sticks, or even drug-free, imitation cigarettescan help you fight the urge to light up.
- Drink water. Rather than munching on food to satisfy your nicotine cravings (which can cause the weight gain that often accompanies smoking cessation), sipping water can keep your mouth occupied and will help you feel alert. Try carrying a water bottle around with you to keep yourself hydrated throughout the day.
- Avoid alcohol and coffee. Stay away from drinks that you may associate with lighting up. "For many smokers, cigarettes and alcohol are interconnected," says Glynn. "You want to break that connection for a while during quitting."
- Be active. Easing yourself into a light exercise routine can distract you from smoking, motivate you to stay healthy, and help you avoid post-cessation weight gain.
- Inspire yourself. Make a list of all the reasons why you want to quit and keep it in your pocket. Look at it when you get discouraged.
If after all this you still find yourself struggling with cravings but dont want to resort to medication, get some support. Find an online smoking-cessation aid, such as the American Lung Associations Freedom from Smoking program or a local support group, such as Nicotine Anonymous.