Sunday, January 1, 2012

Psyched To Stop Smoking

What better ways to cement a resolution than for the upcoming year, rite?

2012, I welcome you with open arms. Like any other years before you, I became all the wiser with each passing time; useful lessons that I can learn from what life has to offer. But you will be different from the years before you: 2012, you will be the time for me to UNLEARN something which I regrettably acquired since sec two – smoking.

Let's see how we can apply Psychology (specifically, learning) to understand what makes smokers tick.

Learning and Psychology

Learning, as defined by psychologists, is a process through which experience produces a lasting change in behaviour or thinking. The ability to learn had stood us in good stead over other animals which rely heavily on reflexes and instincts. Notwithstanding, learning doesn't discriminate either; as proven how I can actually end up learning my way to misery.

Over the course of this article, I will list the two types of learning in 'Classical' and 'Operant' conditioning, and explain how smoking is an interaction of these two. For an overview of learning in a mind-map format, click here.

Smoking As A Learnt Process

Smoking in itself is a learnt result. I didn’t come out from my mother’s womb instinctively knowing how to light up. I have to learn how to hold the cigarette between my fingers, stick it up in my mouth, ignite the tobacco, inhale then exhale, and voila, I smoked!

In retrospect, I remembered the first instance I started smoking. And of course, the unsavoury bodily reaction that comes with it – coughing, gagging, and gasping for air. That’s actually the body’s in-built defence mechanism to respond to something that I should steer well clear off.

But I, being the rebellious person that I am, ignored my body’s wails. After several practices and more incessant coughs, I ‘perfected’ the art of puffing. My mind (it’s fine to smoke) and body (lesser coughs) soon got accustomed to the idea of smoking – too accustomed that without lighting up, I became unsettled.

Coz before I knew it, I was hooked.

Smoking and Classical Conditioning

To further establish that smoking is a learnt process, it’s worthwhile to compare yourself with a non-smoker.

In a famous experiment, Ivan Pavlov discovered that he had unexpectedly altered the physiological responses of dogs to salivate by the sound of a bell. But all of us know that dogs don’t secrete saliva on the bell’s cue, but rather, when food is present. So how is this possible?

In true simplistic fashion, I shall summarize them as follows: (else see here)


Neutral Stimulus+ Unconditioned Stimulus --> Unconditioned Response
            Bell     +               Food           -->               Salivate


Conditioned Stimulus --> Conditioned Response
            Bell            -->               Salivate

Let us now relate back to my smoking dilemma.

For example, a lighter may not represent anything to a non-smoker; it’s a neutral stimulus for him. But to me, it’s a conditioned stimulus because it automatically triggers my cravings to smoke.


Neutral Stimulus+ Unconditioned Stimulus --> Unconditioned Response
       Lighter     +               Cigarette     -->              To Smoke


Conditioned Stimulus --> Conditioned Response
           Lighter        -->              To smoke

Similarly, if a non-smoker witnesses smoke billowing from another smoker’s puff outside Pasir Ris interchange, it meant nothing to him, or in fact, he may find it distasteful. Being a smoker myself, I find it appealing.

Classical ‘Re-conditioning’

So to cease smoking, I have to identify and re-programme my mind into dis-associating any stimulus that may tempt me to reach out for the cigarette pack such as:

1) The morning call.

2) Every after meal.

3) When I’m stressed/bored.

4) When I’m taking a shit.

5) When I see other smokers (with my friends, at the coffee shop, etc).

As a start, I can remove all the ashtrays, lighters and leftover cigarette boxes at home for good measure. It all begins at home, after all.

Smoking and Operant Conditioning

On the flip side of the coin, operant conditioning depends on rewards/punishments that motivate one’s behaviour (instead of a stimulus and response). Like what Sheldon successfully experimented, it’s a form of ‘sanding-off the rough edges’ in a person’s behaviour.

The same can be said of smoking, though. It gives us a considerable boost to sedate negative feelings such as stress or anxiety. Nicotine activates the pleasure sensors of the brain to release dopamine, a pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter.

Smoking makes me happy, sadly.

Operant ‘Re-conditioning’

For one thing, I have to applaud the Government’s effort to alleviate the punishing effects of smoking. Just look at the gory images that are imprinted on the cigarette boxes; makes the SAW sequels look like Cartoon Network. And not to mention their never-ending efforts to educate her people on the dangers of nicotine addiction.

I can also adopt a punishment/reward system as a smoking cessation measure. For instance, one of my friends offered to give me a kiss if I manage to stop smoking - that's a damn attractive reward lah. It's so effective that I'd even contemplate to bend the rules by lying that I've stopped smoking for good. Haha!

In spite of that, you can reward or punish yourself as you deem fit. For example, I love to watch soccer matches. In the true spirit of my cause, I can reduce the watching privileges by the number of cigarettes I smoked i.e. 15 minutes removed for every 1 cigarette smoked. So if I smoked 3 cigarettes, I have to content with only the 2nd half of the match. :(

Electronic Cigarette and Nicotine Patch

The electronic cigarette looks very promising in my bid to stop smoking for good. It has the physical anatomy like a cigarette's and resembled every steps to 'hold the cigarette between my fingers, stick it up in my mouth, ignite the tobacco, inhale then exhale' I mentioned earlier.

I remembered my friends saying 'asalkan ade asap', which translates directly to 'as long as there's smoke' when we have to settle for a lower-grade cigarette. Yes, we smokers even have a personal preference for different types of cigarettes. The good thing about electronic cigarette is that it produces harmless vapour when we exhale instead of tobacco-related smoke.

In addition, to keep the withdrawal symptoms of nicotine absenteeism at bay, I can couple it with nicotine patch which aims to reduce my dependency of nicotine.

Slow And Steady Wins The Race

I can't go cold turkey on smoking. I don't have the willpower to put an end to my 10 year old habit abruptly. I don't want to be on the receiving end of the full onslaught of nicotine withdrawal symptoms either.

But what I want and need is the full support from my family and friends.

I was pleasantly surprised when my cliques shared the same goal. In fact, they're the ones who initiated it. It's a no-brainer that every smoker wishes to quit smoking, and that includes your smoker friends that you normally hang out with. While it is almost impossible to elude your friends, why not change their mindset towards a cigarette-free ambiance? It is still possible to have a good time without smoking. :)

There you have it, my personal resolution for 2012, and beyond. What are words if I never put it into practice, right?

It's time to kick some 'butt', baby.


*Disclaimer: This is not an expert advice.

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