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In the first few weeks of quitting many people feel uptight as a result of nicotine withdrawal. There’s also the frustration of not having cigarettes to “take the edge off” during stressful moments.

It will take time to settle into new routines and find new ways to manage life-stress now that smoking isn’t an option. Within six months of quitting most people report that their overall mood is better and their stress levels lower than when they were smoking.

Generally there are two types of stress to manage:

  1. Day-to-day stress
  2. Crisis

Time-out or “me time”

One of the great challenges of successful quitting is finding a new way to take time-out. If you’re finding you’re still stressed a month or more after quitting, consider how you take your breaks and get your “me-time” now that you’re not smoking. Common time-out times are during breaks at work, when you first get home from work and after dinner.

Some people find it helpful to set up a relaxing area in their home or revisit an old hobby or start a new passion. 

Break the smoking stress-cycle

It's important to remember that while smoking may feel like it helps you cope with stress, it’s only a short-term fix. Having a cigarette is not going to take the problem away, it just gives you a momentary reprieve from it and feeds the smoking stress-cycle. Research shows that smokers tend to have higher stress levels than non-smokers so the real way to de-stress in the long term is to become a non-smoker.

A major stressful situation is the most common explanation people give when asked what caused their relapse back to smoking.

A funeral, sudden bad news, a major argument with someone or a relationship breakup are each examples of scenarios that can bring on smoking thoughts.

They can make you feel like the normal rules don’t apply.

Think of these smoking thoughts as memory flashes. Resist the temptation and the urges will pass. Your mind is experiencing stress and is remembering that you used to have a cigarette to temporarily “manage” the situation. But that was an old (and flawed) way of coping.

Giving in to the “just one” thought notoriously leads right back to that old habit you’ve worked so hard to free yourself from.

Remind yourself of the benefits of quitting and of the smarter and healthier ways you’ve managed stress in the short term (e.g. deep breathing, muscle relaxation, mindfulness).

Set up an out-of-the-blue stress plan - your own personal emergency strategy. For example, ask a good friend if you can call them (day or night) if a disaster strikes, or phone Quitline or Lifeline for support.

Stress can increase your heart rate, speed up your breathing and cause muscle tension leading to an urge to have a cigarette to "calm down”. Practise the techniques outlined below.

Deep Breathing

The key to using breathing to help you relax is to use your stomach.

  1. Draw the breath in by pushing your stomach out and letting your chest move up (try not to move your back) then breathe out by pulling your stomach in and letting your chest drop a bit.
  2. Breathe in gradually through your nose as you count to 5 and take in as much air as you can.
  3. Hold your breath to a count of 10 (if you can last that long) then let it out gradually. (As an alternative you can let it out in a rush, through your mouth.)
  4. Concentrate on how your body feels, particularly as the air comes out. You should feel your body relaxing.
  5. Repeat (if you have time) - 3 is a good number of repetitions to aim for. Each breath should result in you feeling just a little more relaxed.

Muscle Relaxation

This is part of a technique called Progressive Muscle Relaxation where you systematically tense and relax all the muscle groups in your body.

  1. Pick one or two muscles - it’s best if they’re in places that are feeling tense but any body part will do.
  2. Sit or lie comfortably, then as you take in a deep breath tense the muscles you have chosen e.g. make your hands into tight fists, or lift your shoulders up high and tense your neck. Hold your breath and hold the muscles tight for the count of 10 (if you can last that long).
  3. Let go as you breathe out. All the while focus your mind on what you are experiencing, the tension while tensing and the flow of relaxation as you let go. Notice the way the body parts become limp and loose. Breathe slowly for a few seconds while you enjoy the relaxed feeling.

Repeat this with as many parts of the body as you have time. Doing each tense-then-relax cycle twice is also good.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves focusing on what is happening right now, your 'moment-to-moment' experience - both internal and external.

You should avoid thinking about the past or the future, what the feelings or thoughts mean, or on what is happening somewhere else. Just focus on what is happening here and now.

If thoughts about other things come into your mind (and they will) simply note that they have occurred and return your focus to the present. It’s impossible to focus on everything that is happening here and now so you need to choose one simple thing (such as your breathing, or the feel of the sunlight on your skin.

You only need to do this activity for a few seconds to get an initial benefit. Persist for longer and it can have more benefits. It can be very useful when you’re in a situation when you can't use other strategies.

Try to practice a relaxation exercise for a minute or two whenever you’re aware of feeling stressed. You should start to notice that afterwards you’re feeling calmer and more relaxed and your mind has moved on from the thought of having a cigarette.

Practicing other ways to feel better can be helpful when you’re stressed

  • Exercise is a great stress-buster
    • Make a plan that is realistic for you to achieve. Getting more exercise can be as simple as getting off the bus one stop early or using stairs instead of lifts. Or try signing up for some group exercises or team sports.
  • Write down the things that typically make you feel stressed
    • Family? Work? Traffic? Brainstorm different ways to combat stressful moments so that you don't feel the temptation to smoke again. Start practising these strategies.
  • Make a change in your routine
    • Get up earlier or go for a morning walk. Instead of smoking when you're stuck in traffic, call a friend (hands free) or take a soft, rubber ball in the car to do hand exercises.
  • Eat healthier
    • Include lots of healthy snacks such as carrot or celery sticks and fruit.
  • Spend time with positive people
    • It’s helpful to be around people who are supportive of you quitting smoking.
  • Treat yourself to a fun activity
    • Take a weekend getaway, fishing trip, full body massage or something that you've wanted to do for a while but put off.
  • Reduce or go off alcohol for a while
    • Try water with lemon or a low-calorie soft drink instead.
  • Reduce your caffeine consumption
    • Try drinking less caffeine - quitting smoking increases the effects of caffeine in your body, and can make you feel nervous or cranky.

Your GP can refer you to a psychologist to learn new ways to manage stress if need be. Medicare rebates are available.