Quitting smoking can be a very challenging process. However, it is the best thing you can do for your immediate and long-term health; the healthier smokefree years that lie ahead of you are well worth the initial discomfort.

It is important to be aware of some of the challenges you may face on your quitting journey.

By learning about the changes your body will undergo while quitting, you can prepare yourself for these symptoms and ensure you’re equipped with everything you need to work through them.

Quitting smoking: Understanding the challenges

“Why is it so hard to quit smoking?”

The challenges of quitting smoking can be both physical and psychological.

Physical challenges include withdrawal symptoms and weight fluctuation, while psychological effects of quitting include addiction-driven cravings, triggers, and emotional changes.

Once you are aware of how these challenges may present themselves, you can plan how you will manage them when they do arise.

With a solid support network and the right set of strategies under your belt, you can overcome these difficulties and successfully kick your cigarette habit for good.

Below, we’ll unpack the main challenges of quitting smoking.

Nicotine addiction

If you are a regular smoker, and particularly if you have smoked for many years, the driving force behind your continued smoking habit is nicotine addiction.

What is nicotine addiction?

Addiction is defined as the repeated, compulsive use of seeking of a substance, and the emotional or mental dependence on a substance, despite being aware of its harmful effects and negative consequences.

Nicotine is the chemical in tobacco that makes it addictive. When you inhale tobacco, nicotine stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the chemical responsible for our pleasure signals.

When nicotine floods the brain’s reward circuits with dopamine, it gives your body a rush or a ‘buzz’. This feels good, and reduces unpleasant feelings like stress, irritability, and anxiety.

Essentially, nicotine gives your body high, and this high keeps you reaching for cigarettes.

Nicotine reaches the brain just a few seconds after you inhale tobacco smoke, and its effects wear off within a few minutes. Sustained use of tobacco causes nicotine addiction. Smoking habits usually begin at a young age, because young people get addicted to nicotine faster and experience stronger cravings.

As the body gets used to receiving regular doses of nicotine, it craves more of it. Over time, the body needs more nicotine to get the same ‘buzz’ effect. This is known as nicotine tolerance.

Tolerance and addiction builds as time goes on, which is why many smokers notice they need to smoke more regularly than they did when they first started smoking.

In other words, the body and brain’s addiction to and dependence on nicotine is what makes quitting so challenging.

So how hard is it to quit smoking? It can be quite hard — but not impossible.

Smoking withdrawal symptoms

So, we know that nicotine addiction is the main overarching challenge to overcome when quitting smoking.

Nicotine withdrawal symptoms present additional challenges during the initial quitting period. 

They are often the catalyst for relapse.

Understanding nicotine withdrawal symptoms

Nicotine withdrawal begins the second you stub out your cigarette.

In fact, as a smoker, you would have already experienced minor episodes of withdrawal.

As we know, the effects of nicotine begin to wear off soon after you finish a cigarette. The greater your nicotine dependence, the sooner the effect wears off.

As the minutes and hours pass since your last cigarette, you may notice you start to feel anxious, irritable, or restless. You may get a headache or feel generally unwell.

These are signs that your body is entering a state of nicotine withdrawal. You’ll notice that these are the very symptoms that prompt you to reach for another cigarette. So, you smoke again, and the cycle continues.

When you are smoking regularly, you don’t experience strong withdrawal symptoms because you alleviate your discomfort with another cigarette.

However, once you commit to quitting, your withdrawal symptoms will intensify the longer you go without smoking.

Many people ask, why is day 3 of quitting smoking so hard?

This is because your withdrawal symptoms hit their peak around 72 hours after you quit — when your body has completely rid itself of nicotine. 

Nicotine withdrawal symptoms can present physically and psychologically. They include

How long does nicotine withdrawal last?

Withdrawal symptoms are at their most intense 48 to 72 hours after quitting, and generally begin to decrease in intensity after a week.

Most physical withdrawal symptoms will dissipate after this initial 72 hour period, but psychological symptoms tend to last longer. They may linger for up to a month.

How hard is it to quit smoking cold turkey?

Quitting smoking cold turkey refers to quitting without external assistance or support.

People who quit smoking cold turkey do not take any more nicotine. This means they enter a state of withdrawal, and rely on willpower and nicotine-free methods to get through.

Many people attempt to quit smoking cold turkey, though this approach doesn’t work for all smokers.

Only 3 to 5% of people who quit smoking cold turkey stay smoke free for at least six to 12 months.

In contrast, smokers who have support from smoking cessation clinics — both behavioural and pharmaceutical support — have success rates of 35 – 55%, as observed over six months.

Quitting smoking cold turkey is challenging as withdrawal symptoms arise at full force. Alternatively, when you use smoking cessation tools like nicotine replacement therapies, pharmacotherapies, or prescribed nicotine vapes, you are weaned off nicotine. 

This reduces the withdrawal symptoms and slowly helps your body adjust to functioning with less nicotine. Slowly, your nicotine dose will be reduced until you are nicotine-free.

In summary, nicotine withdrawal symptoms are a major challenge for people attempting to quit smoking.

If you are attempting to quit cold turkey, you are likely to find these symptoms especially challenging as they will arise at maximum intensity.

If you plan to use smoking cessation therapies to wean you off nicotine, these challenging symptoms will be less pronounced and you may be better able to deal with them.