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The mental and emotional challenges of quitting smoking

  • Nicotine is a highly addictive drug that can make quitting smoking very difficult.
  • Although physical addiction is a major reason why people continue to smoke, recognising the emotional and mental health challenges (and why someone smokes in the first place) is also vital for smoking cessation.
  • Smoking is a common method for coping with depression, anxiety, stress and difficulties. Nicotine withdrawal can amplify these negative feelings. This can in turn make quitting smoking feel more difficult.


There’s no doubt that quitting smoking is hard. The active drug in cigarettes, nicotine, is an addictive substance that can be very hard to go without once your body gets accustomed to it.

Many people who successfully stop smoking will tell you that it was one of the hardest things they ever did. That’s because people who try to quit smoking don’t just battle the well-known effects of addiction and nicotine withdrawal — there are many mental and emotional aspects of smoking and addiction that can be just as hard to overcome.


Smoking is a habit, not just a drug

Any habitual smoker knows about the physical effects of going without nicotine. According to Quit, common nicotine withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Strong craving or urge to smoke.
  • Difficult in concentrating, ‘twitchiness’ or restlessness.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Anger, irritability, or feelings of depression or anxiety.
  • Weight gain.
  • Less common symptoms may include cold or flu-like symptoms, stomach upsets, dizziness or even mouth ulcers.

The unpleasant physical symptoms are a big reason why so many people struggle to quit smoking. However, there are also many non-physical aspects of smoking that can make it difficult to quit.


Smoking is often a way to cope with anxiety, stress or difficulty

Smoking provides temporary relief and a sense of escape. This is why smokers tend to smoke more when they’re stressed. The relief is short-lived, however, and while the active chemicals in nicotine quickly wear off, the stresses and difficulties are likely to remain.

Stressful situations (and particularly stresses that are unexpected) are a common reason why people ‘fall off the wagon’ and start smoking again.

Nicotine withdrawal is in itself stress-inducing. Add to this the stress of being stuck in traffic, worrying about finances, work stress, or disagreements with family and suddenly the urge to revert back to old ways can quickly seem overwhelming.


Smoking has deep roots in our culture

Another reason why smoking cessation can be so difficult is that cigarettes have traditionally been part of many social activities.

Smoking rates have been steadily declining yet smoking remains a popular activity. How is it that something that almost everyone knows is toxic is still popular? While that’s a highly complex question, one likely reason is that tobacco consumption has for so long become a normal part of lifestyle.

The expression “smoko” at work is an example of how easily smoking became part of daily routine for many people. Quitting smokes means not only getting on top of the physical effects of addiction, but also re-learning and changing many of the ways in which we interact with other people, be it at work or while socialising.



“I tried quitting before” is a very common phrase among smokers.

In fact, many smokers think a lot about quitting, and most people who quit smoking made multiple attempts before succeeding. Stress and nicotine withdrawal certainly play a significant part. However, how we feel after failing at something difficult (like trying to beat an addiction) also affects how we go about it in the future.

Indeed, much of how the human brain works has not yet been fully understood. Consider just some of the many ways in which perceived failure can have a very real effect on behaviour:

  • Failure can make the same goal seem harder to reach.
  • Failure might make you doubt your skills and abilities.
  • Failure can lead to ‘self-sabotaging’ behaviour.
  • It is possible for failure to be ‘transmitted’ from parents to their children.

Make no mistake, quitting an addictive drug is hard. However, how we respond to failure, such as when smoking again following a period of stress, can have a huge bearing on what we do next. As Quit puts it: “With each attempt you get a little closer to quitting for good”.


What’s the best way to quit smoking?

There are many reasons besides physical addition that make quitting smoking so hard.

For instance, starting a smoking habit when you’re young may make it harder to stop later in life.

Nationally, 13 per cent of males and 11 per cent of females are smokers by the time they’re 17 years old. Although smoking rates across northern, western and central Melbourne are generally low compared to the rest of the state, some regions still record high overall smoking rates, youth smoking rates, and rates of smoking during pregnancy.

So what’s the best way to quit smoking? It starts by recognising that it’s a physical as well as mental challenge. It’s not just that the unpleasant physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal make it difficult; it’s also the fact that smoking is, for many people, a normal part of dealing with stresses and difficulties. Overcoming both is an effective step forward to quitting smoking.

A CAREinMIND professional counsellor can help you with your concerns and worries. If you want to quit smoking, talk to your GP or contact a reputable organisation like Quit Victoria.


Concerned? Talk to a professional counsellor on 1300 096 269. It’s free to people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Want to know where else you can get help? Find out how to access additional community support.


The CAREinMIND blog is delivered by On the Line. The views in each post do not necessarily reflect those of North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network.