Cigarette addiction: It's not just the nicotine...

If you've tried to quit smoking before, you probably already understand - at a gut level, anyway - what it means to be addicted.  What you may not know is that cigarette addiction is not really just about the nicotine.  Sure, nicotine is extremely physically addictive - more so than even cocaine and heroin, by some estimates.

But most smokers are also psychologically addicted to smoking.  And it is this psychological addiction or dependence that really makes it difficult to quit.

The Psychology of Cigarette Addiction

I am a psychologist and an ex-smoker who struggled for years to quit before I was ultimately successful, so I know a little something about this.  As a smoker, you probably know a lot about this, too, especially if you've ever tried to quit.   

There are tons of products on the market that are designed to help deal with the addiction to nicotine, from patches to prescription pills.  You can read about those in other places on this site.  Some of them will help you quit - the addiction to nicotine is real - and some of them won't, but ultimately none of them are the magic pill that we'd all like.

The reason none of them work as a 'magic pill' is because almost all of those products deal only with the physical addiction to nicotine, and not the psychological dependence that goes along with cigarette addiction.  What there is not-so-much-of are techniques to help you deal with that. 

There are a handful of reasons why there are more patches and pills out there than effective psychological techniques.  One reason is because most people are still looking for that magic button to push to make the whole thing go away.  These folks are prime targets for everyone selling an 'easy fix' to quit smoking. 

Another reason is because the psychological part is complex.  It's not as simple as snapping your wrist with a rubber band to make the urge go away.  Although frankly, as silly as that may sound, that was in fact one of the ground-breaking techniques that marked the recognition that smoking IS psychological.  It is NOT just about the nicotine.

Not sure if you're psychologically hooked?

The truth is, most smokers are psychologically hooked, but if you're not sure whether you are, consider this:

  • If your only dependence is to the drug nicotine, then you should be able to put on a patch the delivers the right dosage and not have any desire to smoke a cigarette.  Have you ever tried the patch?

  • If you're only addicted to nicotine, you should smoke steadily throughout the day, and not want a cigarette more or less on the basis of anything but time.  Have you ever chain-smoked because you were nervous, upset, or even just bored? 

  • If you're only physically addicted, there should be no 'triggers' in your environment, like seeing others smoke, driving, or talking on the phone.  Do you have any smoking 'triggers?'

  • If you're not psychologically addicted, and you quit for 3 days or so, once all the nicotine is out of your body you should never have another urge or craving.  Have ever quit before?

The fact of the matter is, the psychology of addiction is relatively complex, and not altogether understood.  One thing that IS clear, though, is that if you don't deal with it in some way, your chances of quitting successfully go way down. 

The Psychological Factors of Cigarette Addiction

There are several psychological factors that have been identified in relation to cigarette addiction and trying to quit smoking.  They include grief processing, identity issues, plain-old classically conditioned triggers, coping strategies, operant conditioning; etc.

The interesting thing about virtually ALL of the psychological factors related to cigarette addiction is that they do not respond to rational processing, or 'reasoning.'  In other words, programs or techniques that just tell you how terrible smoking is for you - even if they do it very graphically - typically don't make you want to smoke less.  If you've tried one of these, you know what happens: You come out of the darkened room where you've been looking at pictures of ruined lungs, desperate for a cigarette.  In fact, these tactics often make you want to smoke MORE, right?

One of the recent psychological findings that has turned out to be very useful when it comes to smoking cessation is the discovery that people process information in two different 'modes,' using two separate and largely independent information processing 'systems' in the brain:  The Rational System, and The Experiential System.  We've spent years trying to deal with smoking by going through the 'rational' system - hence all the information about how terrible smoking is for you.  That may make you 'want' to quit, on a rational level, but it doesn't make the urge to smoke go away!

The fact of the matter is, it doesn't work to try to deal with smoking issues by going through the rational system - you just can't get at the desire to smoke that way.  You have to go through the experiential system in order to get rid of the desire to smoke.

Getting Rid of the Desire to Smoke

That's the crux of the matter, isn't it?  It's not so much about quitting - you don't want to just 'refrain' from smoking cigarettes.  You want to not want them anymore, right? 

That's all about dealing with the experiential system. 

What to do next...

If you've read about me elsewhere on this site, you know I'm a psychologist and an ex-smoker.  You may also know that I have developed my own step-by-step program to quit, based on the principles I've described above.  That program, called The Complete Quit System is for sale on a different web site, but even if you're not interested in buying the program, you may be interested in the free mini-course to quit smoking that I send out from that site.  The mini-course provides more information about some of the issues I've outlined above, and of course the complete program uses these psychological insights to deliver a step-by-step method for quitting.  

If you think the psychological factors I've described may apply to you, I invite you to sign up for the minicourse, which is delivered by email.  It is completely free, and my readers tell me that the information is very useful.  For those of you who feel that the full program might be what you need, the minicourse also includes instructons for using a discount code available only to minicourse subscribers.  

The Quit Smoking Mini-Course includes a series of 7 Action Steps to help you get ready to quit, and the psychological information in them may be just what you need to really quit for good this time - and did I mention it's free?

Check out the complete step-by-step program at or sign up to receive the free mini-course.  (Don't worry, I don't share or sell e-mail addresses, and I won't send you a bunch of spam - I promise!)

Yes, please send me the free mini-course to quit smoking.

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Mini-Course to Quit Smoking is provided by Quasar Transformations, producer of The Complete Quit System.

 The Complete Quit System is a proprietary program designed to eliminate both the physical addiction and the psychological dependence related to smoking. 

Other Topics in This Section

  • Grief Processing
  • Withdrawal symptoms vs. Side Effects
  • Reasons to Quit