Q. I would love to stop smoking but I’m terrified I won’t be able to handle the cravings!

A. When the brain is deprived of the substance, activity, process, person, or other factor to which it has become accustomed it often lets its displeasure surface in the form of a craving—a conscious or subconscious demand for immediate gratification. Metaphorically compare them to a 4-year-old child whose mother has just said “no cookies before dinner,” and who has become accustomed to grabbing cookies at his/her own pleasure.

There is a pain/pleasure center in the emotional brain layer. It wants what it wants, when it wants, and in the way in wants. When you experience a craving, remind yourself that you taught your brain to use nicotine, and now you need to retrain it. That will take some time, energy, and consistency. Once you create a picture of what is happening here, your fear of cravings can diminish through understanding.

Identify factors that trigger your cravings. Think of this process as obtaining valuable insurance. The more triggers you identify, the more pre-planned strategies for dealing with them you can develop.

Expect cravings periodically, although most are temporary and short-lived. In some ways they resemble waves of the ocean as they rise, crest, and fall. Plan proactive responses and/or preventive activities for specific situations. When a craving does occur, implement one of your preplanned strategies. For example:

  • When a craving occurs, stop, take a deep breath, and observe. Identify factors that triggered the craving. Try to identify whether the thinking layer or the emotional layer is predominating.
  • Distract yourself (e.g., call a friend, talk the talk, do something different). Ask: What just happened, is happening, or is about to happen that would have resulted in the use of an addictive behavior in the past.

Validate your success as you resist the craving. Take charge of your metaphorical 4-year-old. Place the child in the passenger seat (e.g., children are not meant to drive—adults are) and drive your own bus!