The brain game: breaking free from the nicotine trap

by Olife Team

What is addiction? Other than a topic that is much closer to home than we acknowledge it to be. 

Whether it be something that we struggle with personally or not, and whether it seems relevant to us or not… It remains our responsibility to educate ourselves about the reality of addiction and the subtle progression of it. 

As one of the most misunderstood health conditions, addiction is a chronic health condition that occurs when someone is unable to stop consuming a drug, or any activity, even if it is affecting their life and causing physical or psychological harm.

While addiction is mostly associated with gambling, drugs, alcohol and nicotine, it is possible to be addicted to anything. Of course, the story we tell ourselves is very different, which we will get to, but first, let’s look at the causes of addiction.

The causes of addiction

There is a common misconception that people that struggle with addiction lack moral grounding or willpower, or that they could simply stop at any given moment if they decide to. The reality is, addiction is much more complex than that. Some people are more prone to addiction than others, a predisposition that is determined by biological, environmental and experience-related factors. Some of the risk factors include: 

  • Biology: This includes our gender, genetic makeup, ethnicity and our experience with any other health issues.
  • Environment: In simplified terms, this is our quality of life, including our social connections, our economic class and culture. 
  • Development: Earlier exposure to addictive behaviour puts us at a greater risk of becoming addicted. The reason being that areas in our brains are still developing, areas that control our decision making, our judgment of ourselves and others, and our self-control. 

 The choice you have to make

Think of it as any other health condition… the higher the risk factors, the higher the risk of developing a disease. Addiction is no different. You may have made bad choices, but you did not choose to become addicted. 

While addiction is defined as being unable to stop consuming a drug, or any activity, even if it is affecting us, a lot of the time, the story that we tell ourselves is worth questioning. Often, it denies the needor more so, the wantto stop in the first place. While you might not have chosen to become addicted, it is your choice whether you commit to recovery or not.  

 Now, hold that thought!

The social dilemma

For the sake of this article, we will focus on one of the most common types of addiction - nicotine. According to World Health Organization (WHO) reports, the prevalence of smoking is increasing in many developing countries, including Egypt. The reality is that nicotine addiction is widespread and normalized as recreational use. It is enabled and it is dismissed, feeding a feeling of emptiness that makes its way to the root of the habit. When societyand consequently your inner critictells you that you're a moral failure and you’re weak… How likely are you to reach out for help? Let alone want to stop? So, you claim that you enjoy it, but how much can you really enjoy obnoxiously inhaling smoke into your lungs?

The story we tell ourselves

If you are a smoker, let’s take a little trip down memory lane. When did you decide to become a smoker? 

Not the moment you had the first cigarette. The moment it became a habit. The moment you decided to smoke everyday. Was it a conscious decision? Did you wake up each day eager to progressively increase your intake? 

We’re getting sarcastic, but the point is… I’m sure you drifted into it like every other smoker in the world. 

I’m also sure that you have been working towards a quit date that never seems to come. Or a quit date, that never seems to stick. Or, you’ve given up on quitting entirely because the thought of giving up smoking seems synonymous with painful deprivation. Giving up smoking means forever wanting something you can’t have.

So you settle for a story where smoking is something you enjoy… You look forward to that morning cigarette which actually tastes the worst. You look forward to the one after your meal which is the exact same as the one you had an hour before. You turn to it when you’re bored and when you need to concentrate, although the two states are opposites. You turn to to relax and to relieve stress. Also, opposites. 

Most importantly, you do your very best to drown out the nagging voice that tells you that you’re harming yourself. So why do you continue to smoke? Though nicotine is the obvious answer… its trap is not. 

The brain game

Nicotine is one ofif not themost addictive drug in the world. The effect of it leaving your body is a feeling of emptiness and insecurity, also known as “needing a cigarette.”  The terrible panic of needing a cigarette. The paradox is, the cigarette doesn’t relieve the need, it causes it. It feeds the vicious cycle of panic and emptiness, until no end. Nonsmokers don’t suffer from that feeling of panic. Neither did you, at some point in your life. 

Think of the feeling of emptiness. Imagine it as a little monster that feeds on nicotine. The aim is to starve that little monster. To see the “craving” for what it is. An illusion. A few minutes that bring you nothing more than imagined pleasure.  

Why is the imagined pleasure so believable, though? Well, because you only suffer the craving when you aren’t smoking, and smoking is what relieves it. Your brain then associates smoking with relief. It associates smoking with genuine pleasure. 

Remind yourself that what you’re actually after is the state you were in before you started smoking. You’re literally trying to feel as relaxed as a nonsmoker. 

Let that one sink in! 

Then, I want you to imagine that little monster being reduced to background noise. I want you to imagine being free. 

The withdrawals

In simple terms, an urge to smoke is literally you trying to escape the feeling of nicotine withdrawal… and the only way to be free from it, is by quitting. “Reducing” your intake doesn’t work because the little monster is still being fed. It’s important to remember that only smokers suffer from nicotine withdrawal. Nonsmokers do not. 

While physical withdrawals are real, they are nothing you can’t handle. All it takes is a mindset shift. All it takes is to realize the vicious cycle in action. Drugs are only difficult to break if you believe that they bring you actual pleasure. All it takes is to realize that it brings you no pleasure at all. All it takes is for you to realize that you are a nonsmoker if you choose to be one. 

Once you have your mindset in check, the rest becomes much easier. It becomes easier to recognize the little monster in action. I can’t say that sitting with the feeling of emptiness becomes easier over night. But, it’s only ever overpowering when you resist it. The more you embrace the physical withdrawals, the more you remind yourself that giving in doesn’t achieve anything, the more likely you are to succeed.

With awareness and commitment, you can finally be free. It doesn’t matter how many attempts it takes, you will be free. 

Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed in this article are based on the writer’s personal experience, and are inspired by The Little Book of Quitting by Alan Carr. The views expressed in this article do not represent every addiction, nor do they capture every experience of the disease.

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