25 May 2018Last updated

Healthy body

'Why is it so hard to quit smoking?'

Really want to, know you have to, but can't seem to kick the habit for good? Psychotherapist Anna Yates talks about the journey back to being a non-smoker

29 Apr 2013 | 04:07 pm
  • “It is important not to avoid smokers completely, otherwise you aren’t actually learning a new behaviour, just depriving yourself of the old one."

    Source:Getty Images

“The main reason some people find it difficult to quit smoking is because they expect it to be so. It’s the opposite of the placebo effect, whereby people benefit from something because they believe it to be beneficial – it’s the nocebo effect, whereby people receive a harmful effect from something simply because they believe it will happen. Simply put, if people tell you it is hard to quit smoking, it will be. My job, as a therapist, is to turn this thought around in people’s minds to make it easy rather than difficult.
“Another factor is that as soon as you try to cut down on something, it becomes more desirable. When you go on a diet, consciously you’ll be telling yourself that unhealthy foods are off limits. Unfortunately, because your subconscious thinks in pictures, when you are telling yourself not to have crisps and chocolates, all it sees is images of these foods so you crave them more. It’s the same with smoking.

“Also, the part of the brain that triggers nicotine craving is next to the part that registers hunger, dehydration and fear, which is why scare tactics don’t work on smokers. The more you scare them, the more they want to smoke. It also means you can confuse thirst and hunger for a craving for nicotine.

“I always say to my clients that quitting smoking is like asking a child to give up Christmas because, for both experiences, the anticipation is almost better than the real thing. It’s a learnt pattern of behaviour to want a cigarette when you wake up, or in the car, or on the phone – you expect you will want that cigarette before you have even wanted it. You cannot delete learned behaviour patterns, only replace them with new ones. If this is difficult to get your head around, think of it like a footpath across a grassy field. Over time, the path has been trodden into the grass so you can see it clearly. If, one day, you take a different route across the field, you’ll be treading a new path and it will feel strange at first. However, in time, the new path will be well-trodden and the old one will have grown over – it is the same with learnt behaviour patterns. If you used to have a cigarette with every cup of coffee, start having coffee with a lovely refreshing glass of water instead. It may not seem like a good substitute, but eventually you won’t want coffee without it.

“People don’t realise how clever and how powerful the subconscious mind is. Any time you do anything, your subconscious mind sifts through your memories to find a reference for the last time you were in that situation. This is why you find sometimes you do things on autopilot, such as typing your password into your laptop, or driving to work. So, if you associate certain rituals, places, people or experiences with smoking, change the dynamics for a while. Go to a different café, or have a coffee when you get to work rather than in your car.

“It is important not to avoid smokers completely, otherwise you aren’t actually learning a new behaviour, just depriving yourself of the old one. If friends try to sabotage your efforts to quit, ask yourself why. What could their motive be? One in every two smokers will die from a smoking-related cause, so why would true friends encourage it? Are they afraid of being the last one on the ship when it goes down?

“Your subconscious is a true friend – it will help you achieve any goals you want, as long as you communicate with it by visualising the goals you want and their benefits. So before you get out of bed in the morning, visualise your day without cigarettes, and at the end of the day congratulate yourself on not smoking. Practise saying, ‘I’m a non-smoker’ and ‘No thanks, I don’t smoke’. Start practising this even before you quit.
“By the time people come to me, they are normally at tipping point. They are often seriously concerned that the next cigarette might be the final straw and they are mentally ready to quit. Belief, commitment and motivation are crucial to their success, together with a true desire to be back in control of their destiny.”

Need to know

Anna Yates is a psychotherapist and clinical hypnotherapist.
Her Quit Smoking course involves two sessions and costs Dh1,500. For details and bookings, visit