Smoking Basics


We all have actions and behaviors that we've repeated so many times they've become automatic. For instance, when you first learned to drive, you had to pay very close attention to how you stayed in your lane. Too close to the right and you made yourself steer to the left... "just a bit, not too much, not too much, UHOH, TOO MUCH!! BACK TO THE RIGHT BACK TO THE RIGHT"... and you did this for a while until you learned. Today, you fly down the highway at speeds of 60 mph, thinking about anything and everything EXCEPT which way you need to steer to stay in your lane. that element of driving became automatic behavior years ago.

Observe someone who knits. Most good knitters aren't watching their hands. It's become automatic behavior... the pressure, the touch, the movement. As a rule, do you need to pay attention when you brush your teeth? Or is it just another pattern in a repertoire of learned behaviors that you simply... do?

We can do so many things without 'thinking' because our brains are of two minds. We each have a higher brain, that's the part of you reading this. And we each have an auto-pilot, that's the part of you that manages automatic behaviors like driving or brushing your teeth.

Auto-pilots do almost all of their work just below our radar. That means simply that while we're busy thinking about the phone call or the traffic or what to make for supper, our auto-pilot is busy watching intently for body cues and is ready to connect a response. Auto-pilots recognize immediate needs and, once trained, connect that need to an established response. Your auto-pilot is also involved in survival responses such as fight/flight. When it says, "JUMP", you're hard wired to jump. In the same way, when it says, "LIGHT UP", you feel a compelling urge to smoke.

So how did your smoking behavior begin? Well... nicotine is addictive. No one argues otherwise, anymore. I have no idea at what point I became addicted to nicotine, but it's a pretty safe bet that it was fairly soon after I started smoking. By 'addicted to nicotine' I'm talking only about that particular dynamic where a dropping level of nicotine resulted in symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. Nicotine effects the human body in fairly specific and predictable ways. Granted we don't all feel them the same way, but we all know from personal experience how they feel.

At one time or another we've all run out of smokes and had to go without for 'too long'. Or we've sat in a meeting that just went on and on and on and "dear lord when can I get out of here and have a cigarette?" Or maybe it was a long flight only to sit waiting for a gate while you remained "seated with your seat belt fastened" and quietly climbed out of your skin. We all know what nicotine withdrawal feels like.

Four of the first withdrawal symptoms are: increased muscle tension (that ansty jumpy 'clenched' sensation), shallow breathing (truthfully, most of us haven't a clue how we're breathing until we start to pay attention), foggy thinking or difficulty concentrating (we know when our thinking is sharp and when it isn't), and a shift in mood (if it was past time for me to smoke, I became one cranky piece of work. what about you?). Pull out a cigarette, light up, take a drag or two and every one of those withdrawal symptoms just disappears...within seconds... until your nicotine level drops and it all starts coming back around.

That was the beginning. Then, somewhere around the time I'd trained my auto-pilot to light up in response to subtle symptoms of withdrawal, my smoking behavior started to drift into other areas. Feeling a bit irritable or angry... a cigarette would bring a bit of 'calm'. Feeling a bit down, a cigarette seemed to provide relief. Bored? Light up. Driving? Light up. Hungry, tired, lonely, on the phone, at the computer .... light up. Why? Because the physical/mental/emotional symptoms of nicotine withdrawal are identical to the physical/mental/emotional symptoms of fatigue, anger, boredom, driving... in fact, any and all forms of stress.

And therein lies the difficulty with quitting, the two reasons why smoking is associated with so much of life:
First, because getting through my day, whatever that day may be, involves most of the same physical sensations, body cues, as nicotine withdrawal.
And second, because my auto-pilot doesn't care why I'm tense, barely breathing, groggy, and/or grumpy. It's only concerned with immediate effective responses and will repeatedly connect the response it's been taught will get the job done, especially if the response 'worked' last time. Every time I smoked and created an intended change in my body cues, it was just like practicing steering to stay in my lane. And just like driving, with time and practice, smoking as a response to the body cues of life became automatic.

That's how I smoked my way through 35yrs of my life. I think that automatic dynamic of smoking in response to certain body cues, regardless of what caused them, is at the center of smoking for most, if not all, of us.

If you are serious about quitting and staying quit, it is time to address the smoking behavior and not just the chemical addiction. The good news is that as set in their ways as auto-pilots appear to be, they can be quickly and fairly easily retrained. The key is for you, the 'you' who is reading this, to begin to be more aware of your physical, mental, and emotional symptoms (your body cues). For most of us, the only way that's going to happen is if we use some tool that will remind us to stop and pay attention. Otherwise, we get caught up in our day and fall into our established patterns. The next section will explain how you can begin to create the necessary awareness so you can 'show' your autopilot how to change and not just 'tell' him that he must. You're going to deal directly with the source of your smoking habit.