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Stanton Peele

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This is How People Quit Addictions

Posted: 09/13/11 03:45 PM ET

Our fellow HuffPost blogger, Laura Harvey, has written "How I Broke All the Rules -- But Still Quit Smoking."

"I was a smoker for 28 years. This month I celebrated one year smoke free. Even though I tried to quit many times before -- probably 20 to 30 times in the last 10 years -- this time felt different."

Laura goes on to explain a number of the specific techniques she used -- like practicing breathing and walking instead of smoking to relieve tension -- but this was her number uno technique: "I finally challenged the belief that I needed a cigarette."

As Laura indicates:

"Beliefs are very powerful things. And when a smoker says, 'I need a cigarette,' even if we say it flippantly, we really do believe that we need a cigarette."

While Laura's statement is not such a startling revelation -- I think most readers agree with it -- most don't draw the obvious implication: "Boy, that doesn't sound like a disease. Believing you don't have cancer or pneumonia just doesn't get it."

If there is one issue I would take with Laura, it's that she broke all the rules. She actually quit addiction the standard way. When I lecture before addiction professionals, some time during the proceedings I usually fit in the following riff:

"What's the hardest substance addiction to quit?"

Audience (a group in good position to evaluate competing addictions): "Smoking!"

"Oh, has anyone in this group been addicted to cigarettes and quit?"

Sometimes upward of 60 percent of the group raises its hand.

"Wow, that's great. And how many of you used a medical therapy or support group or other type of formal intervention to quit?"

Sometimes nobody -- but never more than a handful of people -- raises their hands.

"Wow, you're too radical for me -- more than half of the people in this room quit the toughest drug addiction of all without any kind of treatment or group. I'm going to have to come to grips with what you're telling me."

Of course, I'm doing shtick at the end. What I then tell the audience is that a higher percentage of drug addicts and alcoholics quit on their own than smokers, since only about half of long-time smokers have quit compared with, say, three-quarters of alcoholics who got over their addictions without formal treatment or AA.

The percentage of self-quitters in smoking is being constantly eroded by the avid marketing of nicotine replacement therapies (gums, patches, etc.). It was once more than 90 percent but is now somewhere between one-half and three-fourths. In the interest of selling their products, pharmaceutical companies labor to convince people smoking addiction is something impossible for people to deal with on their own.

Remind you of anything?

Laura, who has tried to quit previously throughout her life, recommended that people might use nicotine replacement therapy. But she didn't have to do so:

"While the physical symptoms from nicotine withdrawal are certainly real, they are temporary and can be eased with nicotine replacement therapies.

I quit cold turkey, and I was certainly a bear to be around for the first few days. But after a week or so, the nicotine is out of your system."

Yes, addiction is real. And so is people's power to overcome it. I often note that people's personalities change little over their lifetimes -- if you run into somebody from high school or college, you often think, "They're just the same as when I knew them way back when."

The one way they are most likely to have changed is that they have given up an addiction -- smoking, binge drinking, drugging, overeating. It's the normal course of events for most people.

 
 
 

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