Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

How To Quit Smoking: Embrace the Fear

BoomerangIf you’ve watched the news in the last week or so, you’ve probably seen reports of Australia’s new hard line approach to cigarettes. Out have gone the nicely branded cigarette packets with their alluring logos and luxurious gold trim; in has come the near unbranded ‘new face’ of smoking: unappealing dark green packets graphically plastered with images of the various grizzly consequences of partaking in the demon habit.

The message is as clear as when a plague riddled Sean Bean announces to a bunch of hapless 14th Century villagers in the aptly named film, ‘Black Death’, “I bring death!”.

I used to be an extremely heavy smoker; I couldn’t do anything without having a cigarette first (sometimes two); and I couldn’t finish anything without celebrating with another one (sometimes two). I was the perfect caricature of a chain smoker.

Nevertheless, I haven’t had a cigarette for over two and a half years; since the 2nd June 2010 to be specific.

If you’re an ex-smoker yourself you’ll appreciate the importance of that date, because the day you give up for good is one of those things that you never forget – as monumental as when J.R. got shot. The scary thing is I can still perfectly recollect my last cigarette almost as if it had been my last meal: where I was, the last drag, stubbing it out, thinking to myself as the last puff of smoke dissipated, ‘That’s it…Never again!’

I so vividly recall the specifics because quitting really was a turning point for me; a keystone event that initiated a snowball of changes that have made me healthier, more proactive, more focused, less stressed and more enthused towards life.

Now for the bad news:

It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done; something I had failed to do time and time again for the best part of 15 years.

I know…that’s not what you were hoping to hear, particularly if you’re desperately trying to quit. But don’t worry, because the news gets a lot better. The reason I mention how difficult it was first is twofold:

Firstly, because anyone who thinks quitting cigarettes is going to be a walk in the park is predestined to fail; appreciating that quitting will be a challenge is the reality check that underpins the strength and determination you’ll need to succeed.

Deep down, did you really ever think it was going to be easy anyway?

No…Of course you didn’t…and you wouldn’t be reading this article in the first place; you’d have just given up. The truth is that anyone who tells you that there’s an easy way to quit is doing it for their own ends, not yours.

Just as importantly though, my fifteen year struggle to quit taught me a thing or two about what helps and what doesn’t. Not enough to make quitting easy I’m afraid, but enough to make it manageable for anyone who’s truly committed to giving up. Take it for me; if ‘Mr Addictive Personality with Absolutely No Willpower’ here can give up, then so can you…

You’ll discover several powerful quitting strategies that I learned the hard way in the next few posts; but today I’ll begin with a real motivator and determination booster:

Embrace The Fear…

Fear is often our greatest enemy, but when it comes to giving up smoking it can be one of your most powerful allies.

I have never met a smoker who on some level wasn’t worried about the health consequences; and more often than not that’s what finally drives people to quit.

The problem is, whilst we’re all well aware of the potential consequences of smoking, smokers have the uncanny knack of disassociating themselves from them. ‘Oh yeah…that guy has had half his face eaten away by throat cancer…but if I bury my head in the sand it can’t possibly happen to me’. It’s one of the few examples where positive thinking comes naturally to the human mind; and paradoxically it’s one of the few times where positive thinking does more harm than good.

Those cigarette loathing Aussie’s coined a phrase for it – the ‘Boomerang Effect’:

Cigarette smokers aren’t ignorant of the health hazards of smoking; in fact it’s the opposite. They find contemplating the potential consequences so horrific that the only way they can deal with them is to block them out of conscious thought. Thanks to the ‘Boomerang effect’ you’d probably have more success getting a smoker to quit if you told him or her that cigarettes could give them a really nasty cold, than if you told them that they were destined to be consumed with cancer.

I recall the great actor Edward Woodward once saying, “These days you’d have to be either insane or stupid to smoke [with all we know about the dangers]”. Well it seems Boomerang induced insanity is closest to the mark.

My behaviour was a classic example of the Boomerang effect. My favourite packs of cigarettes were always the ones with the health warning, ‘Smoking when you’re pregnant harms your baby’; with the one about ovarian cancer coming a close second.

Deflect the Boomerang

Instead of deactivating the powerful motivational force of fear by ‘boomeranging’ away from the reality of smoking, let your imagination run wild with horror. The fear response evolved for one simple purpose – to keep you alive. So let it do its job – by amplifying and personalising the risks.

The Internet is a wonderful thing; in the weeks before I quit I used it to build up a harrowing portfolio of smoking related tragedies. Stories and images of people in their 20’s and 30’s cut down in the prime of life with the most horrific smoking related diseases aren’t hard to find online; and they can rapidly alter your attitude to the point where every cigarette you light up increasingly shifts from being a source of comforting stress relief to one of acute anxiety and pain.

The story of one individual, Bryan Lee Curtis, who was struck down in his thirties with small oat cell lung cancer; and whose athletic physique transformed into an ashen coloured, skeletal figure in the space of two months haunts me to this very day. That single image of a corpse like figure lying on a hospital bed, with his hollowed out expressionless face has created such a powerful negative association with cigarettes for me that I just couldn’t smoke a cigarette if you offered me a million quid.

This isn’t about scaremongering of course; it’s about facing up to the potential nightmare instead of continually sweeping it under the carpet. It’s an extreme and powerful version of the tried and tested motivational tactic of asking yourself and visualising, “Where will I be in 1, 2 or 5 years’ time if I don’t take action NOW!?”

One where the answer is, “I could have died slowly, unpleasantly and unnecessarily!”

The simple truth is that we’re hardwired to be motivated by fear. It’s a crude type of motivation which tends to fail miserably if you’re working towards a positive goal with a tangible end result; but when it comes down to simply avoiding or running away from something, fear will effectively spur your into action every time. Smoking is a perfect candidate for exploiting this crude form of motivation.

To that end, immerse yourself in the distress that cigarettes have caused others; personalise it. Think to yourself, “That could be me!” Imagine suffering a similar fate.

The effect will be profound. Not only will it strengthen your resolve to quit, but it’ll permanently alter your attitude to cigarettes. It’s all too common for people to fall back into the habit after a few months; not because they’re desperate for a cigarette but simply because they lose touch with the reasons they quit.

But by vividly imagining and personalising the worst, both constantly before and after you quit, you’ll be left with a powerful reminder that’s permanently branded into your thoughts; one that’ll do more than anything else to keep you smoke free.

In the next article, we’ll look at making cigarettes incompatible with your lifestyle. But until then, massively shift your attitude towards the little sods by embracing the fear.