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Dr. Daniel Seidman

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5 Mindful Reasons to Stop Smoking

Posted: 11/17/11 08:25 AM ET

People change when they truly believe the change will make their lives better. For smokers, it's the promise of something better on the other side of no longer smoking that motivates them after they snuff out that last cigarette. That said, as another "Great American Smokeout Day" arrives, let's look at the language so often used to get smokers to put down their cigarettes: "quitting," "giving up smoking," "stopping," "avoiding temptation," "going cold turkey." With so many negatives to describe the truly positive action of going smoke-free one way to keep Smokeout Day positive is to actively engage sensations -- and senses -- that get reawakened when you are not preoccupied with that next cigarette.

Smokers who get to the other side of going smoke-free often say they feel better and more alive once released from the haze of smoking. They sound as if they had lost touch with their senses when smoking, as if their five senses had literally taken leave of them! Lost in the billows of smoke for years on end were their ability to smell and to taste, as well as the senses of touch, sight and hearing.

"Mindfulness" is a concept that borrows from ancient meditation practices. It is a strategy to help get us off autopilot and focus on our experiences and the power of being in the moment, of being more present in our daily lives. In my book "Smoke-Free in 30 Days," I show how mindfulness can help smokers reconnect with their senses and surroundings in ways that have been dulled and deadened by their physical and emotional preoccupations with smoking. For Smokeout Day, here are specific ways to "mindfully" reconnect with your five senses that will help lay the groundwork for long-term success:

(1) Wake Up Your Sense of Smell. Smell is our most "primitive" sense, and a vital part of how we interact with our surroundings -- from enjoying food on our plate, to warning us of the danger of fire, for instance. Smoking reduces the sense of smell, so use this day to reacquaint yourself with the everyday scents you've been missing out on. Starting with the smell of the soap in the shower, or of aftershave or perfume as you splash or spritz them on. Some smells, like coffee, may trigger thoughts of smoking too, so being aware of other kinds of smells around you and establishing new morning rituals can only help.

(2) Get A New Handle On Things. People who are going smoke-free are often concerned about what on earth to do with their hands now! Creating new pathways to engage your sense of touch will distract you from wanting to handle cigarettes. It can be something fun, such as a crossword puzzle, a Rubik's Cube, knitting or playing an instrument. Or you can find something mundane but absorbing, such as typing up work you've been putting off forever. Either way, your mind will be occupied, and so will your hands.

(3) Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. Extending the sense of touch, when you go out on Smokeout Day, find a place outdoors -- away from any smokers! Whether it's warm or cold, sunny or rainy, let yourself feel the weather on your skin. At the same time, focus intently on whatever is in your line of vision. If it is a restful scene, breathe deeply and take in the relaxing feelings the scene engenders. If you are in a busy spot, breathe deeply anyway and focus in turn on aspects of the street "theater" going on around you: a police officer directing traffic, a young couple, two business partners arguing. We all know that smoke irritates your eyes and worse, so going smoke-free will help you see the world anew.

(4) Can You Hear Me Now? As a group, smokers are more likely to have trouble with their hearing. When you go out on Smokeout Day, try to hear what is going on in each of those street scenes you are observing. What are the business partners arguing about? Is the officer blowing a whistle? Listen for the motors of individual cars, trucks and buses as they go by.

As you get on with your day, bring this "mindfulness" of the sights, sounds, smells and sensations you've been accumulating with you. By purposefully focusing on these sensations you are helping to replace any cravings to smoke which come up. Instead, you're now feeling sensations of your own choosing. Just the way stress can amplify cravings, pleasant sensory input can decrease them. The art of distraction is a classic way to ride out any cravings or emotional discomfort. Using nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs) such as the patch or gum or the nicotine inhaler (especially combining two forms of NRT) can also ease you through any cravings you may have in the early stages of quitting.

(5) Take a taste test. If I've saved the best for last, there are two reasons for that. One is to have some anticipation to build up to throughout Smokeout Day. The other is to give your taste buds maximum time to wake up from the numbing effects of smoking. So figure out the day before what you want your "taste test" to be, and have it ready. Anticipating the increased enjoyment of food is a good part of the fun. Increasing your enjoyment of each bite also means you can eat more slowly, which also helps to not overdo it when you've had your fill. Use the rest of the senses you've spent the day reawakening to help you fully enjoy the flavor of the meal you have chosen. Listen for the festive sounds in a restaurant you have chosen, or the chatter of family members around you. Feel the tableware in your hands, smell each food before you taste it, enjoy the "mouthfeel" of each bite or sip.

By now you've gotten through a smoke-free day on Smokeout Day, and your five senses are probably more awake than they've been in a long time. If you can be smoke-free for one day, you can be smoke-free everyday. Day one can be a great confidence builder. Just as reawakening your five senses can help make your smoke-out day a good one, continuing to be "mindful" of your senses can make your smoke-free life a better one as well!

Dr. Daniel Seidman is Director of Smoking Cessation Services at Columbia University Medical Center, and author of "Smoke-Free in 30 Days: The Pain-Free, Permanent Way to Quit," with a foreward by Dr. Mehmet Oz (Simon & Schuster 2010). For more details on the book, go to www.danielfseidman.com.