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Some thoughts on why stopping smoking can be challenging.

Many people successfully stop smoking in October, thanks to the Stoptober campaign, but unfortunately some find themselves struggling in the following months.

So this seems like a good time to share a few thoughts on why stopping smoking can seem so difficult:

We often use phrases like 'being in two minds' about something, or having 'mixed feelings' when we're struggling to take action in some way. These phrases are really useful in describing the situation people find themselves in when they're experiencing difficulty in stopping smoking. One part of them wants to smoke, (otherwise they simply wouldn’t be smoking), whilst another part of them clearly wants to stop. We could call one part the ‘smoker’s mind’ and let’s call the other part the ‘smoke-free mind’. It’s between these ‘two minds’ that the struggle starts; an internal struggle between two seemingly different parts of our mind. 

This is never a comfortable place to be, and the stress and anxiety that can be felt at such times will often cause a smoker to crave a cigarette, but this craving is mostly a craving to reduce anxiety, rather than a physical craving for a drug. Of course it is possible to reduce anxiety or stress in a number of ways, but if we haven't correctly identified what we’re feeling, we may just misinterpret it as a craving for nicotine and thus a sign of the 'addictive power' of nicotine. This will then be followed by another thought from the ‘smoker’s mind’, along the lines of how ‘impossible’ it is to fight such a powerful ‘addiction’, leading to more stress and anxiety, which fuels further cravings... it’s no wonder stopping can be so difficult for many people. 

Part of the problem is that we tend to identify our thoughts - our internal dialogue - as ourselves, and also as factual. The discovery that ‘we are not our thoughts’ is a powerful and liberating lesson, whether it comes from mindfulness meditation, cognitive behavioural therapy, or anywhere else. Equally, learning that our thoughts are not necessarily facts, but opinions, can transform our experience of them, and of our lives. Finally, and equally empowering, is an awareness that thoughts and cravings are transient, and will pass out of our consciousness just as easily as they came into it.

Without this knowledge, it’s all too easy to listen to the ‘smoker’s mind’, without identifying it as such, just accepting it, and following what it is saying. For example, the ‘smoke-free mind’ may be congratulating you on how well you’ve done by not smoking all morning - and how easy it seemed to be. But then the ‘smoker’s mind’ continues, in the same voice, telling you how much you deserve a reward for that achievement... how it’s OK to have one cigarette at lunchtime... how it’ll be much easier to quit completely in a week or two, after cutting down a little… Now the craving has been lit, and before too long the anxiety is rising, and perhaps another attempt to quit will soon become an attempt to cut down. And unfortunately that will bring a sense of failure, and the ‘smoker’s mind’ will soon be telling the story of how impossible it is to quit, which becomes a justification for continuing to smoke. It can seem as if the ‘smoker’s mind’ is always looking for an excuse to fail, as proof that it can’t be ignored.

So how does hypnotherapy help? Well, there are several different ways of describing this, but in essence it strengthens the part of the mind that wants to stop, making it easier to keep on top of the part that wants to smoke. Considered in this way, its obviously best to use hypnosis as an aid to stopping, when you’re really wanting to stop - that is, when the part of you that wants to stop is big enough to have a chance.

Another way of understanding this is to consider a simplified model of what is happening in the brain during hypnosis: There is a shift towards more activity in the brain's right hemisphere, which is more closely involved in emotion, intuition, imagery, metaphor and 'the big picture' - as opposed to the logical, rational, and detail-focussed left hemisphere. Whilst logical, rational conscious processes are important, they do not easily modify emotions, and this is rarely more obvious than in the case of the drive to smoke. We can think rationally and logically about how harmful, expensive and unacceptable smoking is, but it doesn’t seem to help much in many cases. What really needs to be ‘re-educated’ is the emotional drive, the right hemisphere, not the logical thinking left. And this is where hypnosis has the potential to help. It certainly doesn’t help by ‘controlling your mind’ and ‘forcing’ you to stop! 

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