Mind Over Matter: Smoking Cigarettes, A Force of Habit

Smoking cessation is about habit cessation – if you want to stop smoking, you have to defeat your mind and not your body. The common belief about smoking over the last 50 years is that smokers are physically addicted to tobacco, particularly nicotine. While it is true that the body can become addicted to tobacco, research published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology from Tel Aviv University confirms what many smokers and non smokers have known all along: Smoking is a more of a psychosocial habit and less of a physiological addiction.

While it doesn’t seem like rocket science to deduce that smoking is a habit influenced by social elements, it is not a particularly popular theory. Dr. Rueven Dar of Tel Aviv University suspects that this has to do with opposition from nicotine addiction advocates: “These findings might not be popular with advocates of the nicotine addiction theory because they undermine the physiological role of nicotine and emphasize mind over matter when it comes to smoking.” Dr. Dar definitely is on to something: when it comes to smoking cessation, people don’t like to think they can be in the driver’s seat when it comes to quitting. It is much easier to blame smoking on a physical addiction than it is to take responsibility for changing the habit. Smoking cessation is easier to relegate to the back of a smoker’s mind if they don’t think that quitting has anything to do with their own willpower.

Dar and his research team were able to determine that smokers crave cigarettes as a result of psychological cues and not nicotine cravings or withdrawal. They conducted an experiment with flight attendants in which they monitored their smoking behavior on flights that were 10-13 hours long and flights that were 3-5 hours long. They were able to conclude that the duration of the flight had no impact on craving levels, and were surprised to find that craving levels were higher for flight attendants that had just completed the short flight. Were nicotine as physiologically addictive, the flight attendants should have felt stronger cravings after the longer flight. The fact that the cravings had lessened or were the same after the long flight indicates that the smokers had gone longer without their habit of smoking-the longer you give up a habit, the less effect it has on you.

So what are the implications the Tel Aviv University study for smoking cessation? Dr. Dar believes that smoking cessation techniques should concentrate on the psychological aspect of smoking rather than the physical addiction; teaching people to be cognitively aware of their actions and to learn to control their thoughts and cravings. The power to break your smoking habit lies in your hands, or maybe it would be better to say it lies in your thoughts. For Dr. Dar and many others in the fight against tobacco, mind over matter is the key to smoking cessation.

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