How to Manage Withdrawals and Pain after Quitting Smoking
Making the move to quit smoking can be hard enough. Keeping it going through the cravings is for many even harder. You may be wondering, "Why am I experiencing headaches after quitting smoking?" or "Are headaches a normal part of smoking withdrawal?" You may also be wondering if there is a way to ease uncomfortable smoking withdrawal symptoms and if the discomfort associated with nicotine withdrawal will to stop.
Nicotine withdrawal is a key reason why smokers relapse1 which in turn means many smokers need more than one attempt to break the habit for good. Among Canadians who have successfully quit smoking, studies have shown that it takes many people at least a few attempts before becoming 100% smoke free2.
While you may feel discouraged, remember: it's normal to face challenges along the way. For many, the first week will be the hardest with experiences such as depression, headaches and intense cravings3 especially if you choose to quit cold turkey.
By learning more about what nicotine withdrawal feels like and how to manage withdrawals symptoms and pain, you may find it easier to continue your quit journey.
Why do We Become Addicted to Nicotine?
Nicotine produces physical and mood-altering effects on your brain, and as a result, your body craves more of it as time progresses4. Nicotine reduces brain activity, improving mood, anxiety and irritability5. As you continue to smoke, the brain begins to crave a certain level of nicotine at all times.
Cravings are a natural part of quitting smoking, and when your nicotine supply is cut off, it is normal to have withdrawal symptoms and cravings2.
What are Nicotine Withdrawal Symptoms?
At least half of all smokers experience significant nicotine withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit smoking5, so don't feel alone in your quit journey.
Some of the most common nicotine withdrawal symptoms include6:
You will likely face triggers that incessantly make you feel the urge to smoke. Manage those triggers and you will be less likely to accidentally relapse.
Anger, frustration, irritability
Without nicotine in the body, you may struggle to relax and your body may be prone to sensitivities. Feeling negative or irritated is a common symptom of withdrawal.
Anxiety and depression
When your body isn't able to relax normally, you will likely notice feelings of despondency or stress. Anxiety or depression are common for the short time following the end of your smoking. Feelings of depression can outlast most other symptoms and is 25% more likely to occur in those who try to quit smoking (which often sabotages the quit attempt). You should be talking to trusted friends during your withdrawal and seek supportive therapy or antidepressants if you experience a change in motivation, apathy, sadness, loneliness or negative thinking.
Restlessness, lack of focus, confusion, insomnia
Your body can't focus like it normally does (with the help of nicotine), so you may feel a difficulty in focusing. Exercise can sometimes help burn off extra energy and improve the focus throughout your day.
Weight gain and appetite
The body may respond to your quitting with changes in your metabolism and you may find yourself is increased appetite due to the loss of nicotine acting as an appetite suppressant. And that could lead to weight gain if physical activity is low.15
Headaches have reported to be a common physical symptom in the early stages of withdrawal; however they may go away after two to four weeks.16
Sore throat, cough and chest tightness
You might feel like you are having a cold; symptoms such as coughing, sore throat, nasal drip as well as chest tightness are part of the list. It might even feel like a tight chest or lung pain after quitting smoking. You can take deep, long breaths to ease your chest tension and relax your mind. Use cough drops or hard candies to help with the coughing and sore throat.17
How Can I Ease Nicotine Withdrawal Pain?
There are various things you can do to ease any symptoms you may have from withdrawal. It is important to realize that the symptoms won't last, but your health improvements will.
How to Cope with a Nicotine Withdrawal Cravings Right Now
Want to set yourself up for success? The urge to smoke will come and go but when it strikes in full force, but there are many effective ways to manage cravings.
Keep in mind the feelings of cravings will usually pass within 5-10 minutes, knowing this can help you stay strong2.
When cravings hit, try the "7 D's" to help you:
- Deep breathe
- Drink water
- Don't buy cigarettes
- Don't bum cigarettes
Identifying Your Nicotine Triggers
Here are some further techniques to manage triggers and emotions you will feel as you quit smoking. Remember, the craving and feeling will pass with time. The techniques below can help distract you from the emotions and cravings you may be feeling.
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How to Lessen Nicotine Withdrawal Cravings and Pain
1. Focus on a healthy and well-balanced diet
Research suggests that eating smaller more frequent meals can help prevent the urge to smoke. Eat 4 to 6 small meals during the day, instead of 1 or 2 large ones. This will help keep your blood sugar levels steady and your energy balanced8.
Furthermore, research suggests a healthy diet with fruits and vegetables can increase your likelihood of quitting. A UB study has shown smokers who ate the most fruit and vegetables were three times more likely to be tobacco-free for at least 30 days9. This study also found that smokers who ate more fruits and vegetables scored lower on a common test of nicotine dependence9.
It isn't just what you eat but what you drink that can help make the difference. Drinking lots of water can help flush out the toxins in your body, while avoiding alcohol and caffeine can help avoid triggering cravings10.
2. Stay active
Getting exercise can be an important part of your journey to a smoke-free life. Firstly, it can provide a distraction from nicotine withdrawal symptoms and potentially reducing the desire to smoke11. The endorphins released by exercise can also help keep you in good spirits12 as you work through the challenging journey of quitting smoking for good.
As you start to realize the benefits of quitting smoking, you will be able to breathe easier and you'll notice that you have more energy. What better way to make use of this extra energy than getting more exercise?
3. Leverage technology
Not only can technology help you quit, it can also make it a personalized experience, enabling you to plan your quit attempt and track your progress. Mobile apps in particular are great resources that you can use for support.
Many available apps allow you to see the benefits of quitting, watch video testimonials, learn about the contents of a cigarette and receive help addressing common concerns.
These are valuable resources that will allow you to obtain the information and tools you need to feel confident when you finally decide to quit.
4. Try meditation or other relaxation techniques
Quitting can be a stressful time, particularly as anxiety can be a common nicotine withdrawal symptom. To manage this stress, deep breathing exercises or meditation are commonly recommended strategies to get you through13 advice backed by a preliminary scientific study looking at the issue14 .
5. Ask your doctor about nicotine replacement products
How does nicotine replacement therapy help?
Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) gives your body small and controlled doses of nicotine. It is used to decrease withdrawal symptoms, which are triggered by quitting smoking.
There are five forms of nicotine replacement therapy currently on the market. These include: the patch, gum, oral spray, inhaler, and lozenge. All NRT options contain approximately one-third to one-half the amount of nicotine found in most cigarettes, and helps reduce nicotine withdrawal and craving symptoms.
Beating nicotine withdrawal with nicotine replacement therapy
There are two ways you can use nicotine replacement therapy to beat cravings; proactive and reactive.
Being proactive means preparing yourself as you get ready to quit. Withdrawal symptoms typically peak in the first week and last for up to four weeks14. If you have set a quit date and are concerned about managing your cravings, or have struggled with them on previous quit attempts, consider using a form of NRT as you begin, such as nicotine patches.
With certain types of nicotine replacement therapy, you can use the treatment when cravings really start to take over. You can try using nicotine gum, or a spray such as NICORETTE QuickMist, which can start to work on your cravings in 30 seconds.
Even if you are already using regular nicotine replacement therapy such as patches, you can consider occasionally supplementing this with additional support when surprise cravings strike.
If used properly, you will see the biggest impact on your quit journey using nicotine replacement therapy products. Read more about getting the most out of smoking cessation aids here.