What to Expect from Nicotine Withdrawal

How to Feel Better When You Quit Smoking

Mixed race teenage girl breaking cigarette in half
Getty Images/JGI/Tom Grill

One of the biggest fears for people who want to quit smoking is going through withdrawal. Will you gain weight? Can you handle stressful situations? Are you going to be able to sleep or avoid getting angry with everyone you meet? How long will the symptoms last?

These are common questions. Yet, with the right knowledge and tools in place, you can overcome them and make your next attempt to quit a success.

What is Nicotine Withdrawal?

Nicotine withdrawal is a normal physical and emotional reaction to rapidly quitting, or significantly reducing, your nicotine intake. It usually happens when you drastically reduce or stop smoking after you've been ingesting nicotine every day for at least several weeks.

When you use nicotine regularly, your body and brain adapt to the nicotine you take in through smoking, chewing tobacco, or using a nicotine patch, gum or other Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT). You learn to expect a certain amount of nicotine each day.

Your daily intake of nicotine also becomes part of how you manage your emotions and affects how you both relax and keep yourself alert. When nicotine is suddenly absent, you tend to get feelings that are opposite of those that nicotine gives you. These are called nicotine withdrawal symptoms.

What are the Symptoms of Nicotine Withdrawal?

People usually have several of these symptoms at once, making nicotine withdrawal quite unpleasant.

If you prepare yourself and find ways to combat them, you will increase your chance of success.

Depression. People often feel sad, depressed, or have a low mood during nicotine withdrawal, which is sometimes known as a dysphoric or depressed mood. It is important to remember that some changes in mood are normal during withdrawal, but they don't necessarily indicate that anything is wrong.

Many people feel some grief at losing the pleasure they felt from smoking as well. This is a natural part of the process of overcoming your addiction to nicotine. It will eventually turn to feelings of acceptance -- and then liberation -- from your feelings of dependence on the drug.

Exercise is a quick and easy way to give your mood a healthy boost, as long as you don't overdo it by developing a substitute exercise addiction.

Irritability. This mood change can range from feeling irritable or frustrated to angry. Ideally, while you're in the throes of nicotine withdrawal, you should try to give yourself plenty of space from others, as you may end up treating them in ways they don't appreciate or deserve.

Similarly, try to stay away from people and situations that you know will provoke your anger during this time. Eventually, you'll feel less irritable and you may even be better able to cope with annoyances than you did before.

Anxiety and Restlessness. The anxiety you feel during nicotine withdrawal can range from feeling on edge to feeling fear, or even panic, at the thought of facing the future without the calming effects of nicotine.

States of anxiety are worse during nicotine withdrawal for those who are sensitive to anxiety in general.

If you know you tend to get anxious under stress, especially if you're prone to panic attacks, try to avoid stressful situations while you're quitting nicotine. This will reduce the likelihood of your anxiety escalating.

Yoga, mindfulness, meditation and relaxation exercises can all help with reducing the anxiety you feel during nicotine withdrawal.

Difficulty Concentrating. Like most stimulants, nicotine can help with mental focus. In contrast, when you're experiencing nicotine withdrawal, you might find it difficult to concentrate without the boost of the drug.

However, this symptom is largely subjective. You can still concentrate, but just feel less able to. Your focus will return once your body re-establishes its homeostasis.

Try to ease the pressure: don't quit smoking when you have an exam coming up or at tax time. Instead, do it at a time when you're under less pressure to concentrate.

Nicotine Cravings.Most people who are withdrawing from nicotine experience strong urges to smoke. These urges are known as cravings and they're common among people withdrawing from many addictive substances.

Many people find distraction can take their minds off cravings until they subside, since cravings usually only last for a few minutes, even if they're intense. Others find cravings cause them to relapse again and again.

If this happens to you, talk to your doctor about Nicotine Replacement Therapies (NRTs). It may take longer to quit this way, but you may have more chance of success.

Sleep Problems. Difficulty sleeping, also known as insomnia, is quite common during nicotine withdrawal. Daytime exercise can help you feel more relaxed and sleepy at bedtime.

Appetite and Weight Gain. Nicotine can be an appetite suppressant and smoking also interferes with your senses of taste and smell.

One of the most joyous aspects of quitting smoking can be rediscovering the joy of food. If this food is healthy and eaten in moderation, there should be no problem.

Sometimes, people fall into the trap of comfort eating in response to their increased appetite, and end up gaining weight or even developing a substitute food addiction. Avoiding overeating is key to preventing these pitfalls.

How Long Does Nicotine Withdrawal Last?

Withdrawal typically lasts between a week and a month. The period of withdrawal will depend on your individual characteristics, as well as for how long and how heavily you've been smoking.

Occasionally, withdrawal symptoms can go on for longer. If this happens, see your doctor. Sometimes, the stubborn symptoms of nicotine withdrawal can be related to another condition.

It's quite normal for cravings to subside but still occur occasionally months, or even years, after quitting. The trick to maintaining a smoke-free lifestyle is to distract yourself quickly and not give in to the craving. Every relapse starts with a single puff.

Sources

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV-TR Fourth Edition (Text Revision). American Psychiatric Association. 2000.

Edwards A. & Kendler K. "Nicotine withdrawal-induced negative affect is a function of nicotine dependence and not liability to depression or anxiety." Nicotine & Tobacco Research 13:677-85. 2011.

Johnson, K., Stewart, S., Rosenfield, D., Steeves, D., Zvolensky, M. "Prospective evaluation of the effects of anxiety sensitivity and state anxiety in predicting acute nicotine withdrawal symptoms during smoking cessation." Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 26:289-297. 2012.

Leyro, T. M., & Zvolensky, M. J. "The Interaction of Nicotine Withdrawal and Panic Disorder in the Prediction of Panic-Relevant Responding to a Biological Challenge." Psychology of Addictive Behaviors Advance online publication. 2012.

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