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Secrets of nonsmokers: 3 proven methods to help you quit cigarettes for good

Christina Joseph By Christina Joseph

John Agin started smoking as a teenager. Then, in his thirties, “I became aware that I was not invincible," he says. "I decided that I wanted to set a date to quit and just go for it." He had cut back several times before, but this time was different: He committed to a hard cut-off, started working with a health coach and incorporated mindfulness practice into his routine. Now 34, John has been smoke-free for five months.

Research shows that people who quit smoking abruptly are more successful than those who gradually smoke less. While there's no one-size-fits-all approach to kicking the habit, former smokers and experts believe these tactics offer the best chance of success:

1. Stay in the moment with mindfulness.

Studies suggest  that practicing mindfulness reduces smoking at a greater rate than the typical smoking cessation program. "We think of mindfulness as opening up the space to respond rather than habitually react,” says Judson Brewer, MD, a psychiatrist, addiction expert and director of research at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He uses two mindfulness approaches in his addiction practice:

  • For active smokers. “Pay attention to what it actually feels like to smoke,” he advises. “Pay attention to everything. Pay attention to when you inhale. Pay attention to the taste of the cigarette." After that exercise, he says many patients begin to question the habit. "They say, 'How did I not notice this? I've been smoking for 30 years and I’m really not that excited about smoking.' That's a really critical piece."
  • For former smokers. Brewer uses the acronym RAIN to coach patients through the quit:

- Recognize the craving.
- Allow/Accept the craving so you can work with it.
- Investigate what the craving feels like in your body.
- Note the physical sensation. "Is it tension, burning, heat, mouth-watering, tickle in my throat?"

By mastering these four steps, you can ride out cravings.

Similarly, Aetna health coach Martha Buko teaches her clients to stop and think whenever they have a craving. "She told me that if I was tempted to smoke, I should never bum a cigarette off someone," John recalls. "I should make myself go to the store and purchase cigarettes myself. I have to go out of my way. And if I do that, it means I do not really want to quit right now.”

Buko's advice is essentially a mindfulness technique. "That tip gives you the time to pause," agrees Brewer. The suggestion worked for John, who believes, "that small piece of advice probably prevented me from ruining it within the first month."

Read more about mind-body approaches to improving your health.

2. Use mobile apps for 24/7 support.

A mobile app removes the barrier of going to a professional’s office and is close at hand in those moments when quitters are experiencing cravings. "Online communities have been shown to increase quit-rate like 3- to 5-fold," adds Brewer, who developed the app Craving to Quit. But he cautions that success requires a “whole package” of tools that includes coaching.

Some popular apps to consider:

  • Craving to Quit. Brewer’s 21-day mindfulness-based program uses videos, animations and in-the-moment exercises that teach you to ride out your cravings. The app also offers a cigarette tracker and a virtual community moderated by Brewer and trained coaches. Free for three days, then $24.95/month.
  • QuitGuide. The free app from Smokefree.gov helps you track your smoking patterns by time of day and location. The program delivers tips, distractions and inspirational messages to help you deal with cravings and mood changes.
  • Headspace. This meditation app is designed to reduce stress and anxiety — feelings that commonly fuel a smoking habit. Buko encourages clients to use the app when they first quit. Creator Andy Puddicombe has also narrated a podcast  on quitting smoking. The first 10 sessions are free; about $12.95/month after that. 

Learn about fast and easy ways to reduce stress.

3. Seek guidance from someone who's been there.

Who knows better what you're going through and how hard it is than an ex-smoker? Anecdotal evidence suggests that having a smoking “sponsor” with whom to share your experience, progress and setbacks is more effective than getting support from someone who’s never smoked. Here's why:

  • Relatability. Buko doesn’t always reveal to her clients that she's a former smoker, but says doing so sometimes provides aspiring nonsmokers with a needed role model. "I found ex-smokers to be inspirational when I quit,” she remembers. “Those were also the people I turned to when I was having a tough time. I told myself, If they could do it, I could too."
  • No judgment. John says he formed a stronger bond with Buko than with previous doctors who wagged their fingers in his face. "I feel comfortable that if I ever slip up, I can talk to her about it without shame, without fear of judgment. That's big to me."
  • Honesty. An anti-smoking campaign  launched several years ago by the Centers for Disease Control communicated the health effects of smoking through former smokers. In its first year, the campaign motivated 1.6 million Americans to try quitting. Smokers said that they needed to see and hear what it would be like to live with the negative consequences of their habit. 

With commitment, guidance and the right plan, you're well on your way to staying off cigarettes and living a healthier life. Check if your insurance plan offers smoking cessation programs or covers nicotine replacement therapy. Many Aetna members, for instance, have access to the Simple Steps to a Healthier Life online coaching program and CVS Minute Clinic programs.

About the author

Christina Joseph is a veteran editor and writer from New Jersey who still loves to read the old-fashioned newspaper. She’s raising two fruit-and-veggie loving daughters to balance all the treats Grandma sends their way. Christina’s health goal is to resume her workout routine after being sidelined by injuries.