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Coach Corner

Quitting “Cold Turkey” is a Myth: Why That’s Good News

August 17, 2023
By Pivot
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When you hear someone say they quit smoking “cold turkey,” what comes to mind? Do you imagine they woke up one morning cured of their nicotine cravings? Or did they make a plan, change their routines, and simply avoid using nicotine replacement? Maybe they had intense cravings and just powered through them until they came out the other side?

Pivot doesn’t use the term “cold turkey” because it doesn’t seem to have one universal meaning. That’s good news! In reality, there are many different approaches to becoming tobacco-free, no matter what we call them. The key is to find the strategies that work for you!

Under the Surface

For most people, the phrase “cold turkey” evokes a clean break: smoking one day and quitting the next. Very often, when people quit completely in a short period of time, their experience can be misleading. They likely have done inner work that helped them take outward action. For example, they may have considered their motivation and their vision of a tobacco-free future. They may have thought about their previous quit attempts and decided what to do differently this time. They may also have asked themselves how they can set up their environment to make it easier to avoid tobacco. 

All these invisible tasks are backed by science to help people quit tobacco and stay quit. Someone could reflect on these questions over many weeks or months, or they could cover them in one day with a burst of motivated energy. The end result is the same: one day they were smoking and the next they quit.

Nicotine: To Replace or Not to Replace

For some people, “cold turkey” means quitting tobacco without the use of medications like nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). NRT can support you in quitting gradually or completely by replacing some of the addictive component of tobacco, providing some relief from withdrawal symptoms. By focusing less on cravings for nicotine, you can spend your energy on the actions that support a tobacco-free day. These medications are like a bridge from nicotine dependence to recovery, and they are used temporarily for weeks to months. 

Whether or not to use NRT or other medications is a personal decision with pros and cons, but using medication to support a quit attempt is not cheating. There is no benefit to experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms. Rather, not having a plan for coping with withdrawal is the leading cause of relapse while medication can triple your chances of quitting. 

Withdrawal vs. Recovery 

You may think of “white knuckling” it through withdrawal symptoms as “cold turkey.” Many people avoid quitting because of the dreaded mood changes and other physical symptoms that make it difficult to avoid smoking. It never seems like the right time to go through the uncomfortable physical healing that leads to sustained change. You cannot die from nicotine withdrawal! But it isn’t a bad idea to have a plan in place for avoiding certain activities that may be risky – like driving while you’re dizzy or having a difficult conversation while you’re in a sour mood. 

If you have expectations of quitting cold turkey and decide that you may need extra help, it is never too late to incorporate NRT into your plan. Reaching out to someone who can support you in the process can help get you through difficult moments. 

Customize YOUR Plan

If you haven’t had luck quitting tobacco without a strategy, encouragement from family and friends, or medication, you’re not a failure. It’s common to try several times before quitting for good. Your plan should be as unique to you as your reasons for using tobacco in the first place. Pivot Breathe is here to help you find strategies that are helpful, ditch the ones that aren’t, and keep them up day after day. 

Pivot Breathe has several different pathways to quit and “cold turkey” isn’t one of them. Work with your Coach to assemble your own personal toolbox, and get support and share what you’re learning in Community!

One thing all quitting plans should include is a healthy dose of self-compassion. Go easy on yourself, just as you would a loved one. There is no trophy for suffering through the quitting process. But there is hope for a tobacco-free future when you use a thoughtful plan that gives you what YOU ned to be successful. 

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Linda Bundick, MS, CHES, NBC-HWC, NCTTP

Aimee Richardson, MS, MCHES, CHWC, NCTTP

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