Withdrawal is Real
Take a deep breath and hold it as long as you can.
It feels OK at first, right? Not much different than before you held it.
Keep holding it. Slowly things start to change.
Soon your lungs start to feel different. The air that felt fresh a few seconds ago starts to feel different, almost foreign. Maybe you are starting to feel like you need to exhale.
Hold it longer.
Soon you will feel like you need to get the air out of your lungs, and you may start to feel panic. At some point (hopefully before you pass out) your body will take over and force you to breathe.
As you exhale the old air and take a fresh breath, it feels good to have cool clean air enter your lungs again. You feel relief that you can breathe normally.
What happens that can cause your rational thinking mind to so quickly change to a state of panic, creating a state of mind that forces you to take a breath?
And what does this have to do with smoking?
If you are or have been addicted to smoking cigarettes, you will recognize that feeling as being very similar to nicotine withdrawal. That feeling you get when the time has passed that you normally smoke, and all you can think of is when you can light up again.
Let’s take a closer look at the stages of withdrawal.
STAGE 1 – Inhaling
Oxygen – When you first hold your breath, you fill up your lungs with clean, oxygen filled air. Receptors in your body (specifically in the aorta and carotid arteries) tell your brain that you are getting oxygen so it feels good to inhale.
Nicotine – After a cigarette, nicotine enters your bloodstream and travels to receptors in your brain that control making you feel good. Your brain gives you a feeling of satisfaction as a reward, despite other harmful chemicals also entering your body with nicotine.
STAGE 2 – Processing
Oxygen – As you hold your breath, oxygen trades for carbon dioxide in your lungs. As the oxygen decreases, your body signals your brain that the air needs to be changed for fresh air.
Nicotine – In a similar way, your body starts breaking down nicotine and lowers the level in your blood. The receptors that are sensitive to nicotine begin to signal your brain that the nicotine level is dropping.
At this point, you are probably already thinking of when you are going to have your next cigarette to “top up” the nicotine level your body is used to.
STAGE 3 – Withdrawal
Oxygen – Soon the oxygen in your blood starts to drop past a critical level. Since you have not started to breathe again, your brain enters into fight or flight mode. This is a primal reaction to a major stress being placed on your balanced system in your body and is a basic survival instinct.
This creates a sense of panic. You need to breathe and you need to do it now! Fresh air has risen to the top of the priority list in your mind. Breathe or die.
Nicotine – Nicotine has also established a critical level in your blood. Above this level you feel normal, everything is good. Below this level things start to feel very wrong. Small things set you off, you start to get feelings of anxiety, and it is hard to focus on anything other than having a smoke.
This is full withdrawal and can produce a very similar response in your body to the fight or flight response.
STAGE 4 – Replenishment
Oxygen – Once you can no longer stand it, you exhale the old breath and take in fresh air. Your body senses a higher oxygen level in your blood and very quickly returns to normal. As long as you maintain a sufficient level of oxygen, your body will remain satisfied.
Nicotine – The feeling of anxiety is almost unbearable. You smoke a cigarette to get relief. Very quickly the nicotine travels to your brain and the receptors signal that you are once again above your required level. The anxiety and panic leave and the whole cycle is ready to start again.
What does all this mean?
Nicotine dependence is a very real problem. Have you ever heard a non-smoker say “It is easy to quit, just stop smoking!”? They can’t understand that for a lot of smokers, that is like saying “Just stop breathing!”. Nicotine has become a very strong part of how your body functions and re-training your body to live without it takes time.
For some people the dependence has become so strong that quitting abruptly can actually be a risk to their health. The sudden chemical change can lead to rapid heart rate, excessive perspiration, and neurological effects such as muscle tremors and vertigo. For these people, quitting gradually may be the safest way to quit by allowing their bodies time to adjust to lower levels of nicotine until they can quit completely.
Have you experienced withdrawal from smoking? Tell us about it in the comments below.