Where There’s Smoke, There’s Misfire: Smoking Wreaks Havoc on the Brain

I’m going to break all scientific blog protocol here and speak personally, from the heart. Because not only would it be wrong of me to urge you to quit smoking without revealing my own personal battles with nicotine addiction, it would be useful, I think, for those of you trying to quit to know it is possible, even for someone like me who used to smoke a pack a day, to live a smoke free life.

Like most people who get hooked on cigarettes, I started smoking at a young age: in college to be precise. Cigarette manufacturers find us when we’re young and vulnerable, needing something to do with our hands or a way to calm down or a means of being social with other smokers or as a way to take, as one psychologist put it, “a mini vacation from life.” By the time I was a war photographer, I was up to a pack a day.

Suffice it to say, one need not be a war correspondent to understand the mind games and excuses of a diehard smoker. Everyday life is stressful. For everyone. Whether the bullets are real or metaphoric. Once you start associating feelings of calm with smoking cigarettes, it becomes increasingly difficult and seemingly impossible to redirect that nervous energy elsewhere. Moreover, the cigarette companies specifically design their product to hook you in and keep you their loyal customers forever.

All this to say, I get it. Boy, do I get it. But I also know I’ve been 100% smoke free now for well over a decade, after a few unfortunate backslides in my late thirties, during a particularly stressful time, and if I can do it, trust me, you can, too.

But first the science. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, we’ve all known smoking is bad for our lungs and our physical health for quite some time now. As a reminder, here are the stats: 1 of every 5 deaths in the U.S. can be blamed on smoking; it is associated with over 15 types of cancer; and it can cause diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease and stroke.

But now we know it’s not only the body that suffers from cigarette smoke. Smoking also wreaks havoc on our brains and cognition.

“Smoking has emerged as the most consistent predictor of cognitive decline,” said Dr. Alex Dregan, Public Health Sciences Researcher at King’s College. In his 8-year long study of 8,800 adults over the age of 50, participants were given tasks measuring cognition and cognitive abilities. At the end of the study, the outcome was clear: smoking was consistently associated with lower performance in global cognition, memory, and executive functioning. Another study found smoking was associated with cognitive dysfunction even in those younger than 30!

So, with all of this in mind, how does one quit the vice-like grip of tobacco? It’s actually simple. You have to make the decision that you want to quit. That you want to see your kids grow up and meet your grandkids. That you want to live a healthier life, both body and mind. It has to come from some deep place inside you or it will never work. In fact, until you decide you’re really going to quit — that means no sneaking a cigarette here and there, no “I can have just one, it’s fine…” — quitting is impossible.

Once that decision has been made, the next step is to steer clear of as many smoking triggers from your life as possible: friends and loved ones who urge you to share a smoke with them; places where you like to smoke or have often smoked; the idea that every glass of alcohol must be accompanied by a cigarette. Once you recognize your own individual triggers, you must then take a deliberate non-smoking action to counteract the urge to smoke.

These actions can be anything from taking a deep breath and meditating; to telling yourself, “This is a trigger, let it go…”; to redirecting your energy into helpful actions, such as going on a walk or taking a yoga class or picking up a paintbrush or a guitar or a good book. There’s no one way to quit smoking, but you must choose, for yourself, your own individual trigger-removing, redirecting path and stick with it. Find a buddy to help you, just like in Alcoholics Anonymous: whenever you feel the urge to smoke, pick up your phone instead and call that friend who’s agreed to talk you down from your urges.

The good news is that releasing yourself from the physical addiction of nicotine takes only a few days. For me, it took three hideous, eyeball scratching days of withdrawal, when I felt like screaming and crying and reaching for a cigarette every minute; for you, it can take anywhere from one day to several days, but rarely does nicotine stay in your bloodstream longer than a week. But please, if you slip up, cut yourself some slack. It might take several tries to quit smoking, as it has been said to be as addictive — if not more so — as heroin. It took me, oh, at least a half a dozen tries until I finally made it through to a glorious, smoke-free life.

I wish I could say I now see someone smoking and am disgusted by it. Even though the smell of cigarette smoke now actually does turn me off; even though I know how bad smoking is on every aspect of my health, part of me still — and will probably always — feel that urge to light up. The only difference now between a smoker and me is that I have learned to step back, in the heat of that desire, and recognize it for what it is — a thought, a feeling, a well-worn neural path deeply embedded from past experience, nothing more.

And now that we know that smoking could affect our cognitive health as well, we all have one more reason not to give in to that urge.

I believe in you. I also know that if I can do it, you can, too. Added bonus? Your clothes and home and car will no longer smell like an ashtray. Just believe in yourself and take the simple but necessary steps to remove the temptation from your life, and a smoke-free, brain-healthy life can be yours.

Deborah Copaken
Deborah Copaken

Deborah Copaken, Head Writer at Neurotrack, is also a New York Times bestselling author of The Red Book and Shutterbabe, among others. Her work appears regularly in The Atlantic as well as in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, The Washington Post, and many others.