Meditation to Help Quit Smoking

Non-smokers live about 14 years longer than smokers. In addition, smokers are at increased risk for a laundry list of health problems and face increasing social pressure to quit smoking. However, nicotine’s addictive properties make quitting difficult—long-term smokers say “Quitting is easy. I must have done it a thousand times.” But meditation may offer a complementary approach to smoking cessation that could allow some to quit for the last time.

How Can Meditation Help a Person Quit Smoking?

Studies of general addiction treatments have shown that meditation decreases substance use and relapse. Given smoking’s addictive nature, it is likely that more generalized studies of meditation and substance abuse may apply to smoking cessation.

Meditation is all about mindfulness—being aware of the body, thoughts, and feelings in the present moment. Addiction studies have shown mindfulness to be more effective than avoiding thoughts related to cravings. Such thoughts inevitably surface in recovery, and meditation can offer a method for finding acceptance of these thoughts. The ability to change thought processes and certain brain activities through meditation may form the behavioral and biological basis for its benefit in smoking cessation.

Why Use Meditation to Quit Smoking?

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, "Smoking cessation represents the single most important step that smokers can take to enhance the length and quality of their lives." Openness to alternative tools that may help a smoker meet this goal is important.

Conventional approaches to quitting smoking typically use a combination of talk therapy and behavioral modification. Nicotine replacement, with patches or gum, reduces withdrawal effects and cravings for some, but it can cause unwanted side effects. For some people, conventional treatments might be limited in their short- and long-term effectiveness, or they might be too expensive, inconvenient, or inaccessible. For these individuals, meditation offers either an alternative or complementary approach to improve the odds of success in quitting smoking.

How to Meditate to Quit Smoking

Studies on the use of meditation for addiction treatment most often describe the Vipassana type of meditation, which teaches one to observe and accept the presence of thoughts while not over-identifying with them. This is quite different from denying or ignoring thoughts and may help the person avoid feelings of blame and stigmatization, acknowledge the reality of the addictive thought process, and redirect energy and intention.

Meditation for smoking cessation could be approached in a similar way to its use in general addiction treatment. While sitting comfortably and with a straight back, the person begins with at least 20-30 minutes in a quiet place without distractions. With eyes closed, the person becomes aware of body sensations and thoughts, watching what the body and mind are experiencing without over-identifying, judging, or reacting to that experience. This is facilitated by paying attention to one’s breathing without trying to control it. Through mindfulness meditation, the individual accepts the thoughts, feelings, and cravings that arise. Once acknowledged, they can be released and the person’s energy refocused.

What Health Consequences Does Smoking Have?

Cigarette smoke contains no less than 4000 chemicals, many of which include known poisons, toxins, and cancer-causing agents. Exposure to these chemicals drastically increases the risk of numerous diseases. The average smoker has an increased risk for lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (a lung disease), blood clots, vascular diseases, additional cancers, and many other conditions. Smoking leads to early wrinkles, macular degeneration (an eye disorder that is a leading cause of blindness), bad breath, and yellowing of the teeth and fingernails. A pregnant woman who smokes is at increased risk for miscarriage, and her unborn child has a higher chance of being low birth weight, which increases the chances of learning and other medical problems. Given these risks, why would anyone continue to smoke? One powerful reason is the addictive nature of nicotine, a naturally occurring chemical in tobacco. Nicotine is as addictive as cocaine and heroine, so smokers have a physiological and psychological need to continue smoking.

What is Meditation?

Meditation can be generally regarded as a state of consciousness in which there is an awareness of the present and the mind is not overcome by distracting thoughts. Of the thousands of meditation practices influenced by both Eastern and Western traditions, some focus on a quieting and clearing of the mind to experience a deep sense of presence and connection to the spiritual world. Others bring the mind’s focus to a single, specific thought or intention.

Meditation is often confused with, but quite different from, hypnosis. Hypnosis is an active thought process and is usually guided by another. Meditation, on the other hand, is a self-directed state of focus on stillness or a single thought or goal. It may involve the use of music, chanting, breathing techniques, specific postures, or focus on a visualization or external image.

Meditation might be a helpful approach alone or in combination with conventional treatment to stop smoking. A person considering meditation for smoking cessation should discuss the benefits, limitations, and any possible risks with his or her psychologist or other mental health care provider, as well as with a physician, before beginning. This is especially important for those taking medications or who have a respiratory, heart, or other health condition. Meditation instructors and schools, books, videos, and online resources are available to assist in the practice of meditation.

Additional Resources

Medline Plus Health Topic: Smoking Cessation. Has numerous useful links from reputable sources on stopping smoking.

American Meditation Institute for Yoga Science & Philosophy

Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University

Marlatt, G. Alan. Mindfulness for Addiction Problems. Spirituality APA Psychotherapy Video Series. ISBN 13: 978-1-59147-221-6.

Bowen S, Witkiewitz K, Dillworth TM, Marlatt GA. The Role of Thought Suppression in the Relationship Between Mindfulness Meditation and Alcohol Use. Addict Behav. 2007 Oct. Vol. 32(10):2324-8.

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