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Helping the Smoker in Your Life

When someone you love is a smoker, it’s hard not to worry, and it’s hard not to nag.  In our work with smokers who are trying to quit, we often hear, “my spouse/kids/partner/grandchildren have been after me to quit for years.”

The key word here is “years” — in other words, when smokers do finally decide to quit, it isn’t usually in response to the pleas of loved ones, but because the smoker has finally found an internal motivation for quitting.  In fact, the “nagging” of a family member, while always well-intentioned, can have the unfortunate effect of making the smoker feel resentful and alienated.  After all, as a nonsmoker, you are focused on all the scary health consequences of smoking.

You may not know about all the things that make smoking so irresistible for the smoker.

We propose that it might be helpful for you to step back and gain some understanding of why the smoker in your life hangs on to a habit that is so potentially harmful.   When you develop a less biased view of smoking, the smoker in your life will feel that you are coming from a more objective place, rather than from your agenda of managing your own worry about them.  This gives you and the smoker a shared platform of understanding from which to work together to find alternatives to this coping behavior.

Unless you really understand what smoking is about, the smoker in your life might think you see them as irrational or irresponsible.  But when you are able to show that you get it, that smoking does mean a lot to the smoker, then the smoker in your life is less likely to automatically resist your attempts to help.  This way of approaching the issue is in line with Motivational Interviewing, which is a powerful clinical approach for dealing with resistance to change.

The following excerpt from Smoke Free Smoke Break (written for the smoker) offers you some ways of thinking about smoking that may be new to you, the nonsmoker:

Smoking Is Chemical Coping

Nicotine is a paradoxical drug. Smoking both excites and calms. This habit has been shown to improve performance, reaction time, and information processing, while simultaneously stabilizing a person’s emotional tone, which is apparently due to “a periodic pattern of arousal and alertness during smoking, followed by calming and tension reduction after smoking” (Antonuccio and Boutilier 2000, 238).

What this means is that smokers smoke to regulate how they feel, that is, to cope. Coping comes in two broad flavors (and, no, we’re not talking “regular” and “menthol”). You can cope internally (through breathing, meditation, self-talk), or you can outsource coping using chemicals. When you drink alcohol or take prescription psychiatric medications (although some people certainly need the latter), you are coping through chemistry. It’s the same with smoking: it’s nothing other than chemically assisted emotional self-regulation, that is, a way to use chemicals to feel better, less stressed, more energetic, and so on.

Smoking as a Rational Pursuit of Well-Being

As a form of coping, smoking is the pursuit of well-being. Any coping is. The point of coping is to feel better. Thus, smoking is a form of self-help, that is, a form of self-care. As such, smoking is entirely rational. Any notion that smoking is self-destructive or irrational is an utter misunderstanding of the psychology of smoking.

Case in point, it’s Monday; you feel stressed out, so you step out for a smoke break, for a “breather” of sorts, to get away from whatever it is that’s bumming you out, so you can relax and feel better. On some level you know it’s not good for your body in the long run. True, but that doesn’t negate the fact that your motive to smoke is to help yourself feel better now.

And now is where it’s at. “Now” isn’t just a word; it’s your entire life. The authors of The Smoking Puzzle: Information, Risk Perception, and Choice write (Sloan, Smith, and Taylor 2003, 25): “For some, cigarettes provide a ‘comfort,’ a ‘friend’ in times of stress, and a benefit that outweighs all other consequences.” The bottom line is that the motivation behind smoking is self-care, and there’s nothing irrational about trying to cope.

Smoking as a Tactical Gain with a Strategic Cost

Tactical (short-term) behavior aims to change something immediately, whereas strategic (long-term) behavior, by definition, has a longer view of change. For example, going to the movies tonight will help you feel better tonight, in the shorter term. Enrolling in college today will help you get a better job in the distant future, years from now, in the longer term. Get this: all coping is tactical behavior.

All coping is designed to reduce your immediate distress. All coping is motivated by the prospect of short-term gains. But, of course, not all coping is created equal. Some self-help coping behavior, such as smoking, comes at great strategic cost. Indeed, you feel bummed out, so you decide to solve this problem by lighting up. The cost of this coping solution is the price of the cigarette and seven minutes off your life expectancy (Mackay, Eriksen, and Shafey 2006). Is this too great of a strategic cost? Can you afford this kind of solution?

The answer depends entirely on your priorities and the psychological resources at hand. If it takes a cigarette to keep you off the ledge, then wasting seven minutes of your life expectancy may save you years. Cope with what you’ve got until you’ve had a chance to systematically upgrade your coping software.

Smoking as an Expression of Mind-over-Body Values

As a smoker, you probably haven’t thought of yourself as a health nut, but in a way, you are. Let us explain. One way of looking at ourselves is to say that we are a combination of body and mind. Both are equally important halves of one human whole, right? In theory, yes. In practice, no. People differ in terms of what they value more. Some value physical health more than mental health.

Others place mental health over physical health. Both sets of priorities are existentially valid. Indeed, who is arrogant enough to definitively proclaim that you’d do better with an unhealthy mind in a healthy body than with a healthy mind in an unhealthy body? It’s a classic existential dilemma, and whatever you decide is okay by us. We are clinical libertarians who feel that it’s simply nobody’s business to tell you what you should value more in your life, your body or your mind.

Thus, as a form of coping, smoking is an expression of mind-over-body values. Indeed, when you choose to cope (which is mind business), you are paying for your emotional well-being with your body as the coin. In other words, just like your classic body-focused health nut who gets up at dawn to run a 5K or drive to a yoga session, you, too, are going to extremes to maintain your health—the health of your mind, that is.

As such, smoking is a coping extreme in which the mind’s short-term well-being is obtained at potentially grave long-term risks to the body. But guess what? This kind of extreme coping at the expense of the body is common. Take extreme sports, for example. People risk body health and even life itself just to get a mental kick by climbing cliffs and jumping out of planes. Whether you join the military, become a cop, or go on a humanitarian-relief mission in a war zone, you are essentially chasing mind health, a fix of existential meaning at potentially life-threatening costs.

After all, pride, honor, and a sense of accomplishment are all just forms of mental well-being. And, as a society, we generally see nothing wrong with paying dearly for this kind of psychological health with the voucher of the body. So coping by smoking is nothing other than a choice of psychological self-care at the expense of the body. Are there other ways of coping? Of course. But that’s not the point—at least not yet. The point is that as a smoker who is paying for emotional well-being with the body, there is no need for you to second-guess your sanity. You are doing what all of us are doing, in one form or another. The only issue is that you are overpaying: buying a moment of emotional well-being at too great of an expense to your body.

Smoking as Consciousness Modifier

People smoke tobacco because nicotine is a psychoactive drug. Psychoactive drugs activate your psyche, that is, alter your mind. That’s “better living through chemistry,” and as we see it, there is fundamentally nothing wrong with that. After all, we do it all the time when we drink coffee, eat chocolate, or take a pill to reduce anxiety or alleviate depression. Smoking, as a coping behavior, works because it changes your state of mind. And that’s the whole point of coping. All coping is designed to alter the mind, to reactivate the psyche in the direction of pleasure, significance, and well-being. In other words, all coping is psychoactive, mind altering, and consciousness modifying by design—even the kind of coping that involves inhaling nothing more than unfiltered air. Speaking of which…

Smoking as Breath-Focused Coping

Smoking, as we see it, isn’t just about inhalation of tobacco. It’s also about the process of inhalation and exhalation itself. Indeed, smoking is indistinguishable from your run-of-the-mill deep-breathing exercise, except that you are inhaling junk air rather than unfiltered Mother-Nature air. Did you know that much of what makes deep breathing relaxing is the prolonged exhalation phase of breathing? For breathing relaxation to be most effective, it helps to slow down your breathing rate to extend the amount of time that it takes for you to exhale the air out of your lungs—which is pretty much what happens when you smoke: you inhale, you hold, and then you slowly exhale. And voila: you feel relaxed. Our guess is that much of what you enjoy about smoking isn’t tobacco itself, but the relaxing subtleties of the slow-smoking behavior, that is, the inherent relaxation of the breath work itself.

Smoking as a Platform for Meditation

Edward Bulwer-Lytton (quoted in Kuntz 1997, 82) once said, “The [person] who smokes thinks like a sage.” Exactly, for there is more to smoking than meets the eye. What you have, in fact, developed is an excellent platform of breath-focused, contemplative coping. Indeed, like a devoted monk, for years, you have been breaking away from the rat race of the daily grind into brief and effective meditative retreats. While you have been certainly poisoning yourself with the junk tobacco air, at the same time, you have taken time to cope. Indeed, you have developed what we see as an invaluable habit: “dosing” yourself with “paced” contemplative, breath-focused self-care.

Nonsmokers aren’t generally so attuned to their coping needs. They mostly plow through the day, and if they are conscientious about psychological self-care, they might sit down to meditate at some point. You, however, have chosen a different path, a path that makes a lot of sense: you’ve been coping on demand. You have mastered an important existential skill, that of putting life on hold and taking the exit ramp for a few minutes of coping solitude, reassuring yourself that life can wait for a few minutes until you catch your breath.

The problem, of course, is that you’ve been breathing junk. What we’re suggesting, if you want to quit smoking, is to kick the tobacco but keep the actual habit of dosed, breath-focused self-care. In other words, the trick is to ditch the smoke but keep the smoke break, and to learn to smoke air. And that’s entirely doable; you’ve been practicing breath awareness for years. We’ll help you rebuild a smoke-free body on the breath-focused platform that you have built with the help of your smoking. You haven’t smoked in vain!

Smoking as Coping through Ritual

Smoking, like any repetitive behavior, is a ritual. Rituals are emotionally stabilizing because they provide a sense of predictability. When you participate in a familiar routine, you have a feeling that you know what’s going on, so you begin to calm down and relax. Life is uncertain, and we escape into rituals to create illusions of simple predictability. That’s normal. So, smoking, as a ritual, is just another psychological oasis, a behavioral sequence that cues the mind to relax. With time and repetition, not only does the smoking behavior go on autopilot but so does your own internal reaction to it. Relaxation becomes conditioned and automatic. You invest seven minutes of the body’s health in return for about as much time in your mind’s well-being. It would seem like an ideal exchange, except for such existentially and financially cheaper coping rituals as just breathing.


So, the question may come to your mind — are we suggesting that you enable the smoker in your life by adopting these attitudes?  Of course not.  We are enabling the understanding between you, the nonsmoker, and the smoker in your life.    The idea here is to help you, the nonsmoker, approach the smoker in your life without blaming or fear, enabling, if you will, a dialogue that may finally lead to lasting change.


Related: An Unofficial Apology to Smokers

Resources:  P. Somov & M. Somova, Smoke-Free Smoke Break

Woman smoking photo available from Shutterstock.

Helping the Smoker in Your Life

Marla Somova, Ph.D.

Marla Somova, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice and an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Counseling at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, PA. She is the co-author of "Smoke Free Smoke Break" (2011).

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APA Reference
Somova, M. (2012). Helping the Smoker in Your Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 31 Mar 2012
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