Yet another reason why it's hard to stop smoking

Not considering yourself a smoker because you occasionally take a puff? Think again.
Not considering yourself a smoker because you occasionally take a puff? Think again.

New research out of Britain concludes that losing their sense of identity could be one reason why so many smokers find it hard to kick the habit.

"When people attempt to quit smoking, what they are really doing is attempting to bury part of their old identity and reconfigure a new one," said lead researcher Caitlin Notley, from the University of East Anglia in England.

"That can be hard. Particularly when it's something that has been 'part of them' for most of their adult life. Although many people do manage to quit, relapse is very common," she added in a university news release.

"Of course, we know that smoking is physically addictive, and there has been research about the psychological side of it – but this assumes that people are unable to resist physical urges, or are vulnerable to social cues," Notley said. "We wanted to understand other social factors that might also be important."

The findings were published online in the Journal of Substance Use.

According to a 2015 HSRC report, 17.6% of adult South Africans smoke tobacco. Four times more males (29.2%) than females (7.3%) were found to smoke. The province with the highest current tobacco smoking prevalence was the Western Cape (32.9%).

Take this quiz to find out if you're ready to quit.

Emotional triggers

In the current study, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with people who had quit and relapsed. About 40 participants described their history of smoking and previous quit attempts, and discussed any smoking relapses. The researchers then focused on the 23 people who provided the most detailled information.

"What we have found is that relapse is associated with a whole range of emotional triggers. It is often tied up with people wanting to recapture a lost social identity – their smoker identity," Notley explained. "People want to feel part of a social group, and recover a sense of who they are – with smoking having been part of their identity, for most, since their teenage years."

Notley added that people often go back to smoking because "they feel it helps them cope with stressful events. Many saw slipping back into smoking as inevitable. They also talked about a sense of relief at regaining their identity as a smoker – so there are a lot of emotional reactions related to relapse, such as pleasure, but also guilt and shame."

Tips on quitting

While pointing out that there isn't a single "stop smoking" formula that works for everyone, a previous Health24 article gave the following tips on how to stop smoking:

  • Set a clear "quit date" that makes sense for you personally, such as a birthday or some other personal milestone.
  • Anticipate the situations in which you're going to be tempted to relapse, and have a realistic plan for how you're going to cope with those temptations.
  • Consider using a nicotine-replacement device, like gum, a patch, lozenge, inhaler, nasal spray or other medications, for smoking cessation.
  • Recruit the help of other people. No one else can do it for you, but the cooperation and encouragement of those around you can really help.
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