Smoking Triggers: Identify Your Triggers to Quit Smoking for Good


Megan M. was about 18 when she started smoking in high school in Pennsylvania. She first started trying to quit at 22. Today, at 24, she’s a marketing professional in San Francisco and credits identifying smoking triggers as a key part of her success. Here’s how she identified her triggers, and how you can, too.

I started smoking as a social thing. I’d have a cigarette while I was out with friends. But when I went to college, I was in a long-distance relationship and it was stressful, so smoking became my outlet. … I stopped working out. I was smoking and felt awful about myself. I decided that I had to get my life back on track, and smoking was the first thing to go.

I did it on my own. … And one of the most successful things I did was identifying my smoking triggers, the typical times when I automatically lit a cigarette. The biggest smoking trigger was in the car. I’d get out of work or class and get into the car to drive home, and I’d have a cigarette to make the time pass. Another time would be after a meal. When I was really full, I’d smoke to take the edge off the fullness feeling. When I was out with friends and having drinks, I’d always smoke. And I’d smoke when I was stressed.

So when I’d get in the car, I’d say to myself, “I’m not going to have a cigarette now.” I’d be very conscious of it. And I’d wait 10 minutes and focus my mind on something else, and usually the craving would pass. When I was stressed, I started replacing cigarettes with doing crunches, because I felt the need to move to alleviate tension. Or I’d chug a whole glass of water.

The toughest trigger to get over was the social smoking. Those are the only times I’ve fallen back and had a cigarette. Fortunately, I now live in California where it’s almost taboo to go out of the bar to smoke, so that’s helped me.

How Identifying Your Smoking Triggers Can Help You Stop Smoking

Megan has identified some of the most common “smoking triggers,” says Lirio Covey, PhD, director of the Smoking Cessation Clinic at Columbia University, where a major component of counseling focuses on identifying smoking triggers.

Covey identifies these common smoking triggers:

  • Stress and emotional upheaval — often negative, but sometimes positive emotions can trigger the desire to smoke.
  • Exposure to the cigarette or something related to it, like being in the company of other smokers, is another common trigger.
  • Conditional or environmental triggers, like the times you used to smoke and behaviors you have been conditioned to associate with smoking. These are strongest right after you stop smoking, and can weaken over time.

How Can You Find and Face Your Smoking Triggers?

Trina Ita, the counseling supervisor for the American Cancer Society’s Quitline, has some advice:

  • If you find yourself wanting to smoke while riding in the car, make your car an unfriendly place to smoke. Clean it out, empty and scrub the ashtrays and the glove compartment, and get rid of your “what if” pack. Febreze the upholstery. And keep things like gum or sugar-free candy in the glove compartment to give you something to do with your mouth while you’re driving.
  • If being around other smokers is a common trigger for you, talk to your friends who smoke. Ask them for help in not smoking around you as much as possible, to minimize the chance of relapse. If your friends are outside smoking, stay inside; congratulate yourself on not having to stand out in the cold, or not missing the big play at your favorite sports bar because you were outside having a cigarette.
  • Do you find yourself wanting a cigarette right after eating? Get busy immediately after your meal. Get up and clear the table, do the dishes, and pack up the leftovers.

As Megan discovered, often just getting through the first few minutes after a trigger spurs the craving to smoke is all you need. “Just delay that urge,” says Ita. “Even if you wait just 15 minutes, you’ll find that you’re not thinking about it anymore.”