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Maintaining Gains: Preparing For Relapse when Quitting Smoking

Harry Mills, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 14th 2016

The planning stage doesn’t end after you’ve smoked your last cigarette; you will need to be constantly aware of the best way to keep yourself smoke free. Plan ahead and formulate strategies to deal with temptations as described above. At the risk of repetition, some strategies you might consider include:

  • Practicing how you will respond to smokers when they try to tempt you to have a cigarette with them.
  • Keeping in contact with your support people. Think about what you are learning and when you will be ready to help someone else to quit.
  • Reminding yourself as often as necessary that there is no such thing as just one cigarette.
  • Reviewing your relapse insurance lists.
  • Thinking about all the benefits you receive from not smoking, and how the changes benefit your health and your family’s health.
  • Thinking about the money you save from not smoking and what you can do with it.
  • Continuing to eat well, exercising daily, and working to increase your personal repertoire of methods for stress relief.
  • Continuing to reward yourself periodically for maintaining your nonsmoking status.
  • Thinking about how much better you feel today than you did during the week before you started your program.
  • Congratulating yourself frequently on having quit smoking. Feel the sense of self-empowerment that you have earned.

Preparing for Relapse

Plan BSmoking is hard to quit, and the chances are fairly good that you'll lapse and/or relapse a few times before you'll be able to quit for good. You may find yourself, in a moment of weakness, saying, "What the Heck" and lighting up. When this happens, it is called a lapse. A relapse occurs when the single moment of weakness (the lapse) turns into an excuse to go back to smoking on a full time basis. The most important thing you can do is REFUSE to give up your effort. Whether you lapse or relapse, the thing to do is to get back immediately to not smoking. When you relapse, get back to not smoking. In either case, identify where you are in the Stages of Change Model, figure out where your plan failed you, make corrections and start again.

Following a lapse or relapse, look carefully at what was happening when you began to smoke again and determine what you can do this time to be successful. For example, if you tried to quit smoking without the help of nicotine replacement therapy and found yourself relapsing when withdrawal symptoms got really bad, consider using nicotine replacement when you try again. If you do decide to try nicotine replacement, remember that you should contact your physician to identify potential risks before you begin.

One of the most common problems that results in relapse is a stressful life change, such as a divorce, job loss, serious sickness or injury of a family member, or major problems with a child. If you are experiencing any of these issues while trying to quit, keep in mind that you are at a greater risk for relapse than someone who is not facing additional stress. If you find yourself in a stressful situation while you are trying to quit, identify and focus on your coping techniques. Try to obtain support from other people, exercise, eat properly, and practice relaxation techniques. Get professional help to deal with your specific issue or find a local support group. Be patient with yourself, but do not give up. If you do experience a relapse, plan for your next quit attempt by taking note of the sorts of things (besides tobacco) that help you to relieve stress. This list can help you when you are ready to work on quitting again.

If your social support system was not helpful the last time you tried to quit, then find other sources of support. Some possibilities include stop-smoking hotlines, stop-smoking groups, or other ex-smokers that you can count on to be there for you. Research indicates that the better your support system, the better your odds of succeeding. If you tried to quit while your spouse continued to smoke and that caused your plan to fail, see if you can’t get him or her to stop with you next time, or at least to draw up a contract of consequences for their doing things that sabotage your next attempt. Quitting will be much easier if you establish a support system of people you can count on when you feel tempted.

Most importantly, whenever you feel like smoking just one cigarette can’t hurt, remember that quitting is probably the single most important thing that you can do for yourself. Never forget that your life is at stake if you continue to smoke, and many other people have been able to stop who are no better or worse than yourself. Quitting smoking may be one of the more difficult things you accomplish in your life, but remember, it may be the one thing that saves your life!


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