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Healthy habits to replace smoking

a profile photo of Dr Sarah White
Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics
20 May 2021

Making the decision to quit smoking is a great step in the right direction. But there’s no denying that the journey to giving up smoking can be difficult. Here I’ll talk about how forming healthy habits can help in your goal to stopping smoking.

How to quit smoking

There are a number of products available to help with stopping smoking. These include nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), prescription drugs and e-cigarettes (vapes). These can help with the physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. But this might not solve everything: you’re still likely to get cravings to smoke. Much of this is to do with the habits and rituals you will have formed through smoking. When you quit smoking, you’ll need to think about making behavioural changes too, to overcome this.

In fact, evidence shows people who get support with behavioural changes in combination with stop smoking products are more likely to be successful in quitting.

Distraction techniques

It’s inevitable there will be moments when you feel consumed by the need for a cigarette. Accept that this will happen, and plan ahead to how you’re going to deal with these moments. The key is to keep busy during these times and find something to distract you. Think of chores you can do around the house to keep yourself busy. Other good distraction techniques include:

  • going for a brisk walk, or some other form of exercise
  • calling a friend or family member
  • going outside or into a different room
  • finding something else to focus on, such as reading a book, doing a puzzle, or looking at a game or app on your mobile phone (such as the NHS Smokefree app)
  • relaxation techniques, like deep breathing

Habits to replace smoking

It might not just be a mental distraction that you need. When you quit smoking, it’s common to find it strange having nothing to do with your hands or mouth at first. Try to think of other activities to replace smoking you could try instead. You might want to:

  • chew gum or suck on a sweet
  • drink a glass of water, juice or tea
  • eat something – though try not to overeat and limit it to healthy snacks
  • whistle, hum or sing a song
  • learn to knit, crochet or sew
  • play with a fidget cube, toy or stress ball

Changing your routine

Smoking is a very habitual thing. You may be used to reaching for the cigarette packet when you leave work. Or you may associate the puff of a cigarette with a morning coffee or relaxing in the evening. Common things that can set off cravings include stress, other people smoking and drinking alcohol.

Try to change your routine and avoid those situations when you’d normally have smoked. This might mean changing how you travel to work, or your route to work. It might mean avoiding particular social situations at first, including drinking alcohol, being in smoky environments or being around people who smoke. Or, if you tend to smoke when stressed, it could mean thinking about how you’ll deal with these situations differently. You should also remove any ‘triggers’ associated with smoking in the house – such as lighters, ashtrays and cigarette packets.

Surfing the urge

If you’re finding it hard to completely distract yourself from cravings, you might find ‘urge-surfing’ a good tactic to try. This is a mindfulness technique, which works on the theory that urges will pass, whether you give into them or not. Rather than trying to ignore the temptation for a cigarette, pay attention to the kind of sensations it causes in your body and really feel it. If you don’t give into the urge, just like a wave, it will eventually come to pass.


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a profile photo of Dr Sarah White
Dr Sarah White
Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics

    • Stopping smoking. Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). ash.org.uk, March 2020
    • Smoking cessation. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised November 2020
    • Ostafin BD, Marlatt GA. Surfing the urge: Experiential acceptance moderates the relation between automatic alcohol motivation and hazardous drinking. J Soc Clin Psychol. 2008;27: 404–418. doi:10.1521/jscp.2008.27.4.404

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