Sunday, 14 October 2012

Mindfulness & the Art of Quitting Smoking

I’m coming up on a year since I gave up smoking, so I think enough time has passed that I can disclose how I did it, and offer it as a potential method for others.  But first, some background ...

I started smoking when I was 15 years old, and by my late teens was smoking a pack a day.  Throughout the 40 years I smoked, my consumption varied between a pack and three packs a day - which would put me in the hardcore camp of the smoking continuum.

From the 90s onward I made a number of attempts to quit; acupuncture, laser treatments, the nicotine patch, hypnosis, pharmaceuticals, etc ... and the one thing they all had in common was they didn’t work worth a hill of beans.  Whether it was the intervention that failed me or simply that I lacked enough motivation, I’m not sure. But each attempt to quit resulted in me becoming miserable and anxious, starting to smoke again, then being angry with myself for failing.

So, I resigned myself for a time to being a “lifer” and just enjoyed that tingling body rush that smoking a cigarette provided.  But as cigarette’s grew more expensive I began to become aware of the financial impact was having on me; I was smoking $3,600 of cigarettes a year.  Once I made that calculation, it was ever present in my mind along with the thought that if I quit, I’d be giving myself a $3,600 raise.

In 2007, I made an interesting observation; I switched from cigarette’s to a pipe in order to reduce my spending on tobacco.  I was surprised when, as I lit up and inhaled the pipe smoke, anticipating that tingling body rush, it never came.  I had made the shocking discovery that it wasn’t the release of nicotine that had been causing the body rush - it was the chemicals that are added to tobacco or are produced when it burns.  I did some research and discovered that there are 4,000 chemicals present in cigarette tobacco smoke.  Here’s a few that alarmed me; carbon monoxide; arsenic; ammonia; hydrogen cyanide; cyanide; acetone; butane; DDT; formaldehyde; sulfuric acid; cadmium; freon; geranic acid; methoprene; maltitol.

As I perused the list it occurred to me that the tingling body rush I felt when I smoked cigarettes wasn’t my body rejoicing over it’s dose of nicotine, it was my body starting to die from these deadly chemicals I’d just inhaled.  Pipe tobacco has far fewer chemicals, but there are still too many.

So I then had two motivators to quit using tobacco entirely;
  1. Financial
  2. The truth about what it contained
Over the past few years as I researched self-injury and concluded that for many it is a biochemical addiction, a muse of hypocrisy began to nag me; If I intended to support clients to stop self-injury, how could I in good conscience continue to smoke?

So I moved from the thought I really should quit smoking to I’m going to quit smoking.  What remained unknown was How?

Through my experience working with various therapeutic approaches, I’d learned quite a few methods to help my clients resolve issues and move forward through difficult periods of their lives.  So, being a Multimodal Therapist, I began to cobble together a plan to make it a reality.

On September 20th of last year I set a quit date of October 15, 2011; I’d learned that quit dates have to be set within a 30 day window to be effective.  Living with a quit date beyond the 30 day mark defuses its importance and immediacy.

Second, using a combination of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Mindfulness, I accepted the two following realities;
  1. I am addicted to nicotine.  I accepted this without judgement, without self-criticism; It is what it is.
  2. It is going to suck for a very long time.  I’d heard from many who had successfully quit smoking that decades later they still felt the urge to smoke.  By accepting this - again without judgement - I prepared myself.  The way I looked at it was; For 40 years I would crave smoking and would give in to the craving each time.  From October 15th forward I would crave it and choose not give in to it.
I also decided that during those periods in the day when I would relish smoking, I would go for a short brisk walk instead.

I had also heard during my ongoing education into Mindfulness, that if one sits with a feeling without judgement or reacting to it, within 40 seconds that feeling will begin to change.  I decided to employ that strategy in the form of an experiment to see if indeed it was true.

So on the night of October 14th, 2011, I smoked my last bowl of tobacco and set my pipe down and went to bed. In the morning I was no longer a smoker.

Was it easy?  No.  But armed with my new strategies it was a hell of a lot easier than pervious attempts.

I discovered that the Mindfulness trick of sitting with a feeling for 40 seconds was true - Every time I was hit with one of those cold-sweat cravings, I would sit with it and time it - it’s true; Not one craving lasted the full 40 seconds, and I realized that for 40 years I had lit up within those 40 seconds or at least make a plan to smoke.

The physical cravings didn’t last long, but what fascinated me was the process addiction; Smoking was associated with other activities - intertwined with the fabric of my life.

For example; When I went out for lunch with colleagues to Kelly O’Brian’s, as I was leaving I had a craving to smoke.  I answered that craving with the thought I don’t do that any more and the next time I went to Kelly O’Brian’s that craving didn’t recur.  However, when I went for lunch with colleagues to Milestones, I again got the craving as I was leaving.  The cessation of the associated process addiction wasn’t transferable!  So, I have spent the past year learning not to smoke in various locations and situations, and I’m sure I have more to come.

So that is how I used CBT and Mindfulness to successfully quit a 40 year smoking addiction.

Your mileage may vary.

Aaron D. McClelland, RPCc –


  1. Thank you for sharing your journey. I am looking to quit smoking myself and have successfully quit numerous is the staying quit i need to work on - Mindfullness is a unique approach i never thought of.


  2. very often, as they are drawing in the smoke, don't you see them sort of relaxing and basking as the Energy flows through them? things to do instead of smoking

  3. Incredible post! I am always looking for ways to quit smoking.