Remember When You First Started Smoking?

by hypnotherapist Chris Holmes

This month, the readership of this site has absolutely gone through the roof – and no, it doesn’t have anything to do with Edzard Ernst!  Or at least, not much to do with him.  “Inconsistencies in the Addiction Story” is the page everyone is reading, and despite recent fuss over other pages this remains the most viewed page on the site after the homepage.

Smokers, I hope, are reading this.  Ordinary smokers and particularly those who would really prefer to be non-smokers but they don’t seem to be getting anywhere with willpower (though some do!) or any of the pharmaceutical aids.

Readership of this site has been steadily climbing every month since it was launched in March 2008, but it has suddenly doubled during March 2010, and that’s the post that did it.  The fact is, smokers have been told a load of misleading rubbish about the tobacco habit and far too many of them end up suffering and dying as a result. So a very warm welcome to all the new readers around the globe – read on, you don’t have to buy anything.

Early Smoking Experiences

There is an interesting difference in the way some of the smokers who have no intention of quitting anytime soon describe their early smoking experiences and the way my clients nearly always descibe them.  This shouldn’t surprise us because very few people are thinking positively about tobacco by the time they reach the hypnotherapy stage.

“What made you think of using hypnotherapy to quit?” I ask each new client, which is a way of assessing how many are direct referrals from previous clients, which is most of them.  If not, the usual response is: “Because I’ve tried everything else!”

Naturally, the first time a smoker attempts to quit the habit they are likely to try to do it all by themselves using willpower.  If that doesn’t work they are probably going to have a go with the thing that is most extensively advertised, namely nicotine replacement poisoning (NRT).  If they knew that it had pretty much the same long-term outcome as willpower they probably wouldn’t bother – but most of them do not, because that is a fact the Department of Health were trying to keep to themselves.

Then – once it became obvious NRT had no lasting effect – the smoker might try some of the pills, willpower again, a self-help book with a CD, NRT again in a different form, then eventually find their way to hypnotherapy.  “You’re my last hope!” is an expression hypnotherapists hear every other day.

Sometimes these smokers are beating themselves up about having ‘failed’ so many times.  Not so: they have been given the wrong information, and with the best will in the world thay have been trying to use that information to quit smoking.  It is the method that has failed, not the smoker.  In explaining this point to them, I often compare it to trying to open a combination lock.  If you have been given the wrong information you are going to struggle, and no amount of willpower is going to change that.  If someone suggests that the problem is that you’re just not trying hard enough, or you don’t really want to open the lock, they would be quite wrong.  Equally it might appear to either party as if it were “really difficult” to open a combination lock.  Which it is, if you have the wrong information.

But if you have the right combination, it’s a snap.

Then I explain to these smokers that they are, in fact, typical of the kind of people who successfully quit smoking.  “The ones who do not succeed either keep putting off the attempt – which you never did – only try once or twice and don’t have the heart to go for it again – you evidently don’t lack that – or decide in advance that there’s “no point” trying other methods because the first method didn’t work.  The fact that you’re here proves that you are not that poorly motivated or unimaginative.  In fact,” I conclude, rather to their surprise because they hadn’t really thought of it that way lately, “you are EXACTLY the sort of person who is going to succeed because you clearly won’t settle for anything less!”

That usually perks them up a bit, because right up until that moment they’d been giving themselves a hard time over it.

At some point in the conversation I will ask them to cast their mind back to their earliest smoking experiences, and put the question: “Do you remember why you were doing that, at the time?”  Never once in the ten years I’ve been helping smokers ditch the habit – and we’re talking about thousands of individual smokers here – never once has anyone said: “For the effects of nicotine.”

Next question: “Do you remember how it made you feel when you first learned how to inhale the smoke?”

Now it is not that unusual, if in conversation with a person who isn’t aiming to quit anytime soon, or has an axe to grind about alternative therapy, or is just cheerfully pro-smoking, to hear them declare: “Actually, I really liked it!  Yes, I took to smoking like a duck to water and I didn’t even cough! In fact I love nicotine so much that even during the night I have a couple of patches stuck to my forehead so I can dream that I’m smoking all night long!”

I’m sure you’ve met someone like that, but it is almost unheard of for that person to book a hypnotherapy session.  Nor should they, they’re obviously quite happy the way they are, being all ‘nicotine friendly’. And why not.

No, I only work with people who have already decided that they want to get rid of the habit, and they only give one of two responses to the question: “I don’t remember” or “It made me feel dizzy and sick”.  There are hardly any exceptions to this apart from the relatively few smokers who first tried tobacco when they already had alcohol in their system.  Some of those people will have experienced the effects of inhaling tobacco smoke much more like a ‘high’ than the rest, who just found it a sickening experience they don’t particularly enjoy recalling, so of course some of them don’t recall it.  This is normal – many people who didn’t have a very nice childhood will report that they don’t remember much about their childhood at all.

The Actual Effects of Nicotine

I ask all smoking clients: “Do you know what nicotine actually does?”  I have yet to encounter a smoker who does know.  The most common guess is: “I think it relaxes me, or something…”  Can we find a parallel in real drug use? A heroin user who doesn’t know what heroin does?  A coke-head that doesn’t know what cocaine does?  No, of course not!

If any future client were to confidently announce: “Why, yes!  Nicotine makes my heart beat faster than it should, reduces blood flow to my extremities which causes the poor circulation that can eventually result in amputation, and the combination of these two changes causes a rise in blood pressure.  It also raises blood fats levels, which is useless and possibly a contributory factor in heart disease, and finally it raises the risk of thrombosis!”

…then I would immediately ask them if they imagined for one moment that they were truly smoking for the effects of nicotine.

Smokers smoke because of cravings, that is true.  But cravings are nothing to do with nicotine or anything else in the smoke.  And we get lots of cravings, they’re not all about tobacco.  They are impulses from the Subconscious mind which prompt you to do what you would usually do at that moment or in that situation, and the factor that has confused everybody about cravings is that they are transmitted via the body and they are real physical experiences that can be mild or very unpleasant indeed, and they will always be interpreted as a ‘need’ or a ‘desire’.

If you respond, the signal will cease which is why it has been misinterpreted as a ‘withdrawal symptom’.  If you don’t respond you get another signal and they will often become more frequent and progressively more uncomfortable and distracting because the purpose of the signal is to distract you from what you are thinking about just long enough to recognise what the circumstances suggest (to the subconscious) you should do, and also to ‘prompt’ you to do something other than what you were already doing.  If you don’t respond the subconscious assumes you didn’t notice that signal so it sends another, more insistent one.

If you have made a conscious decision to stop smoking, the Subconscious doesn’t know, so it (quite innocently) keeps sending the reminders which the poor old conscious mind is now trying to ignore using willpower (conscious effort).  The problem with that is that willpower is an extra effort we don’t normally make, so you can’t keep that up.  You can do it for a while, but it is an effort!  And an effort that you cannot sustain so as soon as you run out of steam – or get distracted by something else – the smoking habit is simply reasserted by the Subconscious mind because those conscious efforts didn’t change anything about it, they were simply a temporary conscious effort to repress the behaviour by force.

If I were wrong about all of this, and it were all about drug dependence, addiction and withdrawal then all of my smoking clients would walk out of my office the same way they walked in.  As would the drinkers, the gamblers, the cocaine-users and the chocoholics… but they don’t.  Cravings and habitual behaviours can be shut down in a hypnotherapy session provided the therapist is a successful specialist in those matters and the client is quite happy to be rid of the problem and has chosen the hypnotherapy route willingly.  True withdrawal symptoms can not be shut down in that way.

In Chapter Ten of Nicotine: The Drug That Never Was I define the Compulsive Habit as distinct from addiction which is the big gap in the medical understanding of these matters, which has got all messed up with theories about dopamine etc. because an understanding of the Subconscious mind is not a part of their training, not is it part of our general education but it should be.  We were all raised and educated in the first place with no mention of a subconscious mind, which leads to the current generalised notion that the conscious mind is the mind and it doesn’t really like the idea that there is another one!  Which is why I repeat the observation in the book a number of times that “the conscious mind doesn’t really believe in the Subconscious mind, except perhaps in theory”.

And by extension, doesn’t really believe in hypnotherapy until the results are encountered for real.  It is not a magic trick.  It is not a parlour game. It is not mysterious in any way, it can all be explained and accounted for. It is not remotely dangerous or risky, but stage hypnosis unfortunately makes it look as if it might be which is why that always needs explaining before we start doing any therapy!

Hypnotherapy is often regarded as alternative medicine, which is wrong on two counts. Firstly, it is not alternative because it was officially recognised as a valid therapeutic approach by the BMA and also their American counterparts in the mid-1950s, so it is orthodox and it has been, and is, used in both medicine and dentistry, though nowhere near as often as it would be if it were not for all the misinformation, prejudice, unnecessary fear and ignorant scoffing that we have had to contend with for the last couple of centuries.  Secondly, although it has medical applications hypnotherapy is not medicine, it is 100% communication so it has more in common with educational procedures than medical ones, and the current, almost universal lack of understanding of the Subconscious mind is entirely down to the Subconscious-shaped hole in our traditional models of education.

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