“Mom, you’re dying from smoking!” The more my son threw up his hands in horror when he saw me smoking, the less I could justify the smoking to myself. So I stopped. That was 2019.
Two months later, I was still a non-smoker. Addiction doctor Tobias Rüther was enthusiastic about my smoking cessation. He’s still in charge to this day Special outpatient clinic for tobacco addiction at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. “When you stop smoking, a lot of positive things happen in your life very quickly.”
Very quickly, very much
After just eight hours, the body was supplied with much more oxygen, Rüther explained at the time. After just a day or two, many people could smell and taste better again. After two weeks, the lung function had improved significantly, which is often noticeable during sport. However, I felt just as fit as a smoker as I did as a non-smoker.
“It can happen that you get a stronger cough than you had before,” Rüther warned me in 2019. “That’s because the lungs are starting to clean themselves.” This spring cleaning takes about a month. “After a month, your immune system is also significantly stronger.”
According to the addiction doctor, after three months of abstinence, you can look forward to significantly better sleep. “Smokers experience nicotine withdrawal at night. You don’t wake up from it, but you sleep much more restlessly. After three months, your sleep has returned to normal.”
Danger from dump number 3
Before I made the decision to go completely abstinent, I figured reducing the number of cigarettes was automatically healthier. But then it shouldn’t have been more than two a day: from the third cigarette onwards, the toxic smoke takes its toll on the body. “The cardiovascular risk, i.e. the risk of having a stroke or heart attack, is hardly increased between three and twenty cigarettes,” says Rüther. At Cancer be that different. The danger increases with every single butt.
“It’s really great that you stopped,” Rüther said again and again. His joy at this is contagious; my own enthusiasm had so far been limited.
Every second smoker dies because of it tobacco addiction. About 50 percent even before the age of 70. “You would have felt the consequences of smoking by the age of 50 at the latest,” Rüther was certain.
Recidivism rate: 95 percent
Aids such as nicotine patches, hypnosis or acupuncture were not necessary to keep your hands off the cigarettes. The fact that my firm will alone was enough could be due to the fact that I switched to the smoking team so late – only at the age of 21. Another reason to be really happy, according to the addiction doctor.
“Most smokers start between the ages of 12 and 16, when the brain is still maturing. Nicotine is an extremely active neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in the development of neuronal connections in the brain.” The result is a lifelong dependency that can hardly be overcome with sheer willpower, explains Rüther.
But now Rüther said: “Of 100 smokers who, like you, quit without help, 95 will relapse in the first year.” Great.
The Smoker’s Illusion
One reason for a relapse could be the “smoking illusion”, a nasty psychological trick of nicotine. The psychological dependency is enormous, stressed Rüther. That’s why I, of course, fell for the smoker’s illusion: For years I convinced myself that smoking would calm me down, relieve stress and give me a short break.
“In reality, however, every cigarette increases the heartbeat and makes you more restless,” says Rüther. The fact that I felt calmed by smoking was simply because I had withdrawal symptoms after a long period without cigarettes and my dependent body was craving more nicotine. “So the cigarette only takes away the anxiety that you wouldn’t have had as a non-smoker in the first place.”
The first night out with friends, music and wine but no cigarettes was pretty weird. Something was missing and didn’t feel normal. For years I had very successfully conditioned myself to the fact that smoking was simply a part of certain situations: with coffee, with wine, at a break.
“It works like Pavlov’s dog: You give the dog something to eat and ring a bell at the same time. At some point the jingling is enough and the dog starts salivating,” explained Rüther.
For smokers, however, this bell rings constantly: people smoke to relax or to get going. As a reward after work, after eating, while waiting for the bus or after sex. The list could go on. “The crux is that cigarettes are so firmly integrated into the everyday life of smokers,” says the addiction expert.
I want to stop. But how?
So if you want to quit, it’s not an easy task. Tobias Rüther therefore first reassures his patients that failure is normal and part of it. “When patients say they’ve tried five times to quit, I give them credit for the attempts. After all, it seems to be an important concern for them.”
Non-smokers can be learned like cycling: falls are part of it, the only important thing is to get back on the saddle. The doctor calls it the “decatastrophizing of relapse”.
It is also important to signal to the brain that something has changed. “Sit in a different chair than usual in the morning. Drink tea instead of coffee. Move the plant to a new spot at your workplace.” This is how Pavlov’s dog in the smoker’s mind can be tricked.
And even if the will doesn’t always hold, it doesn’t have to be a relapse, said Tobias Rüther. “One cigarette is a slip. It’s only after the second that it’s a relapse.”
This article was originally published in 2019 and updated in May 2023.