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Find, keep the power to quit smoking


Sadly, only 5 to 10 percent of smokers who attempt to quit succeed. Withdrawal symptoms of craving and irritability are too great for many smokers. Their brains demand a new supply of nicotine, which binds to the same receptors that bind dopamine—a natural neurotransmitter that gives you a sense of pleasure.

Medications can help people quit. These include Varenicline (Chantix) and Bupropion (Wellbutrin, Zyban). You should consult your physician if you are ready to quit. But not everyone wants to take medicines, and they may not work for everyone.

So, plenty of people instead try to quit by harnessing their willpower.

Willpower is humanity’s supreme strength. And you can harness it to quit smoking and perhaps accomplish much more—pursue a successful career or complete a marathon.

What exactly is it? It is hard to define, but whatever it is, we know when we have it—and when we run dry.

What you may not know is that psychologists think each person has a quota of willpower. When you use it up, you end up with what is known as “ego-depletion.” Psychologists use this term to describe a person’s diminished ability to regulate his or her feelings and actions.

At the moment of depletion, you more easily succumb to the traps of addictions such as smoking, alcoholism and overeating.

Ego-depletion pulls you into the world of fatigue and negative emotions. The result is diminished self-control, and your ability to make good judgments—such as, “smoking more will ruin my brain”—deteriorates.

So how does your willpower get depleted? A typical scenario would involve a busy Monday morning at the office. You want to have a doughnut with your coffee, but you resist it. Then, later that afternoon, you deal with a demanding boss.

Afterward, when you get home, you’re vulnerable to the sight of a quart of ice cream. Worse, it becomes more difficult to be nice to your family. Try resisting a cigarette or dieting on such a day! It’s tough.


So what methods can you use to help you build and maintain strong willpower? Here are some tips:

  • Willpower is like a muscle. It becomes stronger with practice. You will notice an improvement, month after month.
  • Use a reward system. Reward yourself when you reach a goal. A reward might be a vacation or even a small piece of chocolate.
  • Is smoking (or perhaps overeating) filling a void? Try to fill that hole with a passion that gives you a sense of purpose. Perhaps pick up a childhood hobby or pursue a new career.
  • Pre-commit yourself. There is an idea known as the “hot–cold empathy gap,” which means your behavior and feelings are dependent on the state you’re in. So, your “now” decision of “I can quit” may change in one week. Be aware that being overconfident can cause problems with self-control. This is where tracking and monitoring helps. Make a Commitment Sheet where you spell out what you’re committing to and what actions you will take to reach your goal, and put it on your fridge. Track and monitor your commitment during your “hot” times so when the “cold” hits you, you can visually see that you committed yourself and can look back at your progress when you slip a little.
  • Exercise and get enough sleep—they’re excellent physiological ways to refill your willpower.
  • Clear the clutter in your life. This not only includes your office and home space, but also your emotional state. What does clutter have to do with willpower? The Zeigarnik effect states that people have a tendency to stress and obsess unconsciously about unfinished tasks. This stress and clutter cause your willpower to drain down the tube quickly. So, aim for a more orderly living space and mind. Review your life’s corners—places and situations where willpower gets sucked out of you—and clean them out.
  • Shift your frame of mind. If you slip once, think “I succeeded less” rather than “I failed.” This type of thinking keeps the reward centers in the brain active and helps your motivation.
  • Break your routines and habits. We are creatures of habit. They provide us with a sense of security and order. But one habit follows another, so try to shake things up a little. Stop at the gym before or after work. Instead or watching TV all day on a weekend, go for a hike with your family. You never know, you might not need that cigarette when you are having fun.
  • Choose the right place and the right time to quit smoking. If you go cold turkey, do it on vacation, when you’re away from the places that remind you to smoke. A little sunshine, good sleep, no stress from work, lots of play and exercise can go a long way toward letting you forget your cravings.
  • Ask your family and friends to support you through this journey. Moral support is key.

Dr. Maha Alattar is a board-certified neurologist and sleep specialist. She also is the director of the Mary Washington Healthcare stroke program. You can contact her at Sleep Medicine Specialists in Fredericksburg at 540/741-7846.