How I Finally Stopped Smoking

How I Finally Stopped Smoking

I have an addictive personality. When I discover something that brings me pleasure, I tend to go all in. Sports, studies, hobbies.

 

I also know that there are some things that bring me pleasure that aren’t good for me, or risk serious harm. Junk food, alcohol, drugs, BASE jumping.

Thus the constant dance of life is between following the reptilian brain impulses to pursue things that bring me immediate gratification and the awareness that I’m indulging in self-destructive behavior that is not conducive to my longterm wellbeing or survival. I wrestle with what feels good and what I know is good for me.

I smoked my first cigarette at about 12 years old, a Virginia Slim. We had stolen one from my grandma, who had packs and lighters laying on every table of her house, ready to light up wherever she sat. Her ranch house had thick blue shag carpet that absorbed the cloud hanging forever in her house and preserved the smell of ashtray for years. She wouldn’t notice one missing from her multiple cartons on hand. We snuck out into the bush, puffed and coughed clumsily, thinking ourselves quite cool and mature. We doused ourselves in too much cologne to cover up the evidence.

The rebellious habit continued and worsened over the years, and I became a pretty regular smoker by the age of 15. I ran with a crew of misfits and troublemakers, and smoking cigarettes and being too cool for school was one of our calling cards.

The problem was that I was also a very physically active teen, playing soccer and snowboarding, and smoking was obviously not conducive to excelling at either of these pursuits. I also smelled like shit, and others (especially my mother) would call me out on the filthy habit, adding to my sense of guilt around it. What had started as a seemingly cool way for a young kid to stand out from the crowd had in fact become an addiction that no one envied. I was increasingly less proud of the habit, didn’t enjoy repelling girls by stinking like an ashtray, and could feel the physical impact on the other cardio-demanding hobbies I enjoyed. More than anything, I didn’t like the feeling of being a fiend about it, always craving the next hit. I didn’t like bumming smokes off other kids, and was even more ashamed of finding half-smoked “refried” cigarettes in public ashtrays or sidewalk cracks to light up like a junkie with no other options.

Around my senior year of high school I began a long string of attempts to kick the habit.

It was comprehensive. I tried nicotine patches, Nicorette gum, chewing sunflower seeds, breathing essential oils, taking herbal supplements, chanting daily mantras, snapping my wrist with a rubber band every time I craved a smoke. Each attempt would last no more than a couple weeks, days, or sometimes hours before caving to buy another pack.

I felt really defeated, and more than anything, I was pissed that a substance had taken control of me, hijacked my thinking and diminished my sense of willpower. I was determined not to remain a slave forever.

Interestingly, it was during my freshman year of college that I found the solution. I had moved to Durango, Colorado, a scenic mountain town where the college campus rested on a mesa that overlooked hundreds of rugged peaks in the distance. I moved to not only get out of suburbia, but also to pursue the fruits of mountain living. I continued playing soccer on an intermural team, and began mountain biking, hiking, backcountry snowboarding and rock climbing. I was loving the outdoor pursuits, but hated feeling my lungs burn every time I’d try to climb a hill on my bike or hike for a backcountry snowboard jump. My dirty habit was now really interfering with the things that brought me the most joy.

 So, I began using reverse psychology.

Having exhausted all other options in my toolbox (most of which were just replacing one habit with a less harmful one), I decided that what I needed to do was get under the hood and go to work on my brain. By 19 years old, I had begun to learn a little bit about neuroplasticity and the ability to begin rewiring our brains through new intentional habits, triggers and anchors.

Thus, instead of trying to make short-lived pacts with myself, set a goal or find a replacement, I simply created a very strong negative association with the filthy habit of smoking, and reinforced it with demanding cardiovascular exercise. Staying very present to the damaging health impact of smoking, I would consciously force myself to think about lighting up during the times when it was least opportune or enticing. In the middle of a full field sprint playing soccer, I’d imagine stopping dead in my tracks to spark up a Marlboro Red 100, and be repulsed at the thought as my heart pounded and lungs burned. Climbing up an endless 3,000 vertical foot single track on my mountain bike while coughing and hacking phlegm every 200 feet, I’d visualize pulling over to chain smoke 3 filterless Camel Wides back to back to back. The thought made me want to puke. Plodding for hours up a 14,000 foot peak, I had plenty of time to ruminate on the insane prospect of pausing to burn through half a pouch of hand-rolled tobacco, sure to exacerbate the effects of gasping for already thin mountain air. When returning from a long ride or full day in the high country, I’d have no desire to take a puff. I continued this psychological torture experiment for weeks until I had so deeply anchored the experience of smoking with physical pain that I no longer felt the urge, even after a meal or when driving or at parties or all the other places and activities that I’d previously associated with smoking as a joyful habit.

 

Sometimes, the aversion to pain can be a much more powerful force for change than the pursuit of pleasure.

If you have a habit or addiction that has gripped you for a long time that you know isn’t serving who you really are, perhaps its time to reframe your perspective about it. Instead of just looking for healthier alternatives for a replacement fix, get really clear on the negative impact it is having on your life (health, relationships, money, energy, self-esteem, mood, quality of life, etc.), and stay present to it whenever you notice the damaging physical, social and financial effects. Instead of worrying about what it is going to cost you to change, ask yourself, “What is it costing me already by not making a change?” If you get honest with yourself, you may discover that there’s too much at stake to justify continuing something that simply does you no good. Its easier said than done, but I promise you, a more fulfilling life awaits you on the other side of that choice.

Best of luck.

 

Five Ways to Sleep Better

Five Ways to Sleep Better

Why We Don’t Sleep Like We Used To

As we age, many of us do not sleep as well as we did when younger. In college years, we may have been able to pass out cold on a couch or dorm room floor, but now, absent the assistance of alcohol, we may not sleep as soundly through the night. Years of physical toll on the body plus accumulated injuries can begin to ache, and the stress of our modern environment often leaves our minds racing beneath closed eyes.

 

 

The Sleep Remedies to Avoid

Many adults have unfortunately turned to over the counter or prescribed sleep aids to get through the night, some of which can have harmful and downright bizarre side effects (see: my mother sleep-talking on Ambien). These are somewhat akin to putting a bandaid on the wound, and about as unhealthy as drinking NyQuil on the regular. They may help to knock you out, but don’t necessarily provide a deep and restorative sleep necessary to heal the body. (Disclaimer: whenever possible, I will recommend homeopathic remedies in favor of prescription drugs or any blend of synthetic chemicals – I recommend using them as little as possible. Also, I am not a doctor and don’t play one on the internet.)

 

How to Sleep Better, Naturally

Fortunately, there are a couple natural and free ways to sleep better at night, and without the use of any drugs to leave you feeling groggy the next morning. They may seem slightly unorthodox, but through empirical research have proven to assist me in getting the quality Zzzs I’d been missing. They are simple, but not all are necessarily easy, and some are only recommended using the right equipment and fitness level. I’ll list them in order of ease:

 

1) Leave your phone outside the bedroom

There are a couple reasons why this is beneficial. First, instead of scrolling aimlessly (or worse, checking emails or other to-dos) and staring into blue light, you can begin to quiet your brain with some natural light and perhaps a few minutes of reading, journaling or meditating. Studies show that the blue light emanating from most devices actually disrupts the serotonin-melatonin production cycle in the body, making it harder to fall asleep naturally once night has settled. Additionally, giving yourself permission to practice a little self-care, reflection and restoration before you nod off will calm both your mind and nerves. I’ve found it infinitely more grounding than checking the 24-hour news cycle just before closing my eyes and lying awake fretting about the state of the world.

2) Drink some protein before bed

This surprising sleep elixir can actually help you drop in deeper. If possible, have your last meal or snack at least 2-3 hours before bed, and then have a basic protein shake before nodding off. Protein, for one, helps muscle repair during those critical hours of sleep restoration. Studies have also shown that participants who consume more protein before bed report better quality sleep than those who did not.

3) Breathe some fresh air

This has to do with two things: sound and temperature. For one, many people sleep better with a little white noise, whether it be a fan, wind rustling the trees or distant city sounds. Thus, cracking a window or keeping a fan on can actually quiet the mind more than total silence. Second, keeping air flowing or letting a cool breeze in through a cracked window can keep the room temperature slightly cooler. Around 65-68 degrees is an ideal temp for sleeping, as being too hot often wakes us up and being too cold requires more energy to regulate core temperature.

4) Stretch your spine.

You need not be a yogi to get benefit from this, and just a few minutes of stretching can help settle the body. Try a basic seated twist, forward fold, glute stretch and side body stretch to soften some of the muscular tension on your skeleton. Alternately, if you have an inversion table or inversion boots to hang from a pull-up bar, getting upside down for a few minutes is a great way to decompress the spine and also invite some restorative blood flow from the legs back toward the heart. Don’t have an inversion table? Just lay on your back with legs up the wall for 3-5 minutes.

5) Take a cold shower

As I previously mentioned, this is not for the faint of heart, although the benefits are great. While taking a hot shower is therapeutic and calming, it has the adverse effect of warming the body before bedtime, making it harder to fall asleep. Taking a cold shower, on the other hand, helps to lower the body’s core temperature, allowing you to fall asleep faster and get a better quality sleep. A couple pointers on this:
First, try to shower about an hour before bedtime – allowing the body to cool but also settle from the alertness-inducing effects of the cold.
Second, don’t make it too long. About two minutes is sufficient, so set a timer or play a song.
Lastly, breathe. If you’re new to the practice of cold showers, it can come as a bit of a shock to the nervous system, and you’ll find yourself gasping for survival. Practice deep breathing and being with the stimulating effects. Once you towel off and settle the heart rate back down, you’ll find yourself dropping into a peaceful, restorative slumber rivaling that of a hibernating bear.

It may take some experimentation between a combination of these strategies, but they can individually or collectively make a big difference for your circadian rhythms without any need for booze or meds. Happy exploring, and sweet dreams.