Quitting smoking without help is hard: Effects of motivation and other personality factors

Quitting smoking is hard, but that suggestion probably isn’t terribly exciting all on its own since most of our readers probably knew it already. Still, while we’ve talked about quitting smoking using nicotine replacement and medication, we haven’t really touched the subject of all those people out there who just decide to give quitting smoking a try one day without those patches, gums, or pills.

Since something like 95% of those who try their hand at quitting smoking relapse within one year, and most of these people try to quit unaided, I think this is an important topic to touch on. Fortunately, recent research conducted in the U.K. tried to assess the personality and cognitive aspects that end up predicting who will succeed, or fail, in their quit attempt.

The effects of expectation, motivation, and impulsivity when quitting smoking

Quite a bit of research has already shown that when smokers are trying to quit (so we’re talking early on during abstinence), their brains react differently to stimuli in the environment depending on the relationship between those stimuli and nicotine. Stimuli that aren’t associated with smoking (or some other form of nicotine intake) get less attention and show overall less activation of important brain circuits while nicotine associated cues light up the brain just as if nicotine was on board (even though participants were drug free at the time). Essentially, if a stimulus predicts getting a hit, the brain gets smokers to pay attention to it so that they can do whatever is necessary and get a little drug in. Throw in some of that reduced ability to control behavior that we talk about so much (like impulsivity), and which is common not only in smokers but in users of almost every other drug (heroin might be the exception) and you have a recipe for disaster, or at least for a good bit of smoking relapse. And yet if we want to fight the horrible health consequences of cigarettes, then quitting smoking has to be made easier, which nicotine replacement and medications like bupropion have done to some extent.

As part of this equation, knowing the specific predictors of early relapse in people who are quitting smoking may be useful so that professionals planning smoking interventions can do a better job of targeting the most important factors. The study recently published the journal Psychopharmacology tried to assess the relationship between the severity of smoking, the above-mentioned personality factors, and the success of the quitting attempt.

The cool thing about this study is that the 141 people who participated were assessed on a whole set of these cognitive tests twice – once after a smoking free night and a nicotine lozenge and another time after a smoking free night followed by a nicotine-free lozenge. While they couldn’t tell which was which, the procedure gave the researchers an assessment off how different participants’ reactions were with or without nicotine on board. Following the assessments participants were directed to begin their attempt at quitting smoking. While they were asked not to use nicotine replacement options or other medications, they were allowed to use any other resource available and were given a set of information pamphlets that explained expected side effects and likely difficulties during the quit attempt. They were then followed up after 1 week, 1 month, and 3 months. Quitting was identified as minimal smoking (less than 2 cigarettes per week) and was verified both by self report and cotinine testing. There was a small financial incentive to quitting, with people who relapsed after a week getting only £40 (about $60) and those who made it through month 3 getting £150 (about $250), though I’m pretty sure that if $200 was enough to make people quit we’d have just paid up already…

The first thing to note in the results was that 24% of the participants were still not smoking at the 33 month followup. This seems to be about on par with the usually low success rates at 1 year though I’m sure this research group will try to continue following these participants at least up to the 1 year mark and hopefully produce another paper.

The overall most reliable predictor of who quit and who relapsed ended up being the level of nicotine dependence as measured by the participants’ pre-quit attempt cotinine levels and the number of cigarettes they smoked every day. Since cotinine assessments are less biased, it was the most predictive of all throughout the experiment (# of daily cigarettes was no longer predictive at 3 months). Interestingly, self reported impulsivity and smokers’ initial ratings of cravings for cigarettes didn’t end up predicting relapse at all, but those cognitive tests assessing the quitters’ reactions to nicotine associated cues told a pretty interesting story: It seems that early on during their quitting attempt smokers who had more general interference with their cognitive function relapsed sooner. These cognitive problems can be thought of as interfering with normal thinking by nicotine-related cues and maybe even more general interference with brain function. After the 1-week follow-up, at the 1 and 3 month assessment, the odds of quitting had more to do with baseline assessments of motor impulsivity as well as those initial cotinine levels assessing the degree of nicotine dependence.

The take-home: Quitting smoking is hard for different reasons in the first week and later on

If you’ve ever tried to quit you’ve been told you that the first week is the hardest and that once you make it through that the rest is a piece of cake. While this research doesn’t necessarily support that notion, since about 25% of the sample relapsed between each of the followups, it does seem to indicate that the reasons for relapse change after that first week.

It seems that the first week may be difficult because of general cognitive interference by stimuli and cues that are nicotine associated. Those cues make it hard to pay attention to much else and they interfere with normal thinking and attention process, making sticking to the quit attempt difficult. After that point, successfully quitting smoking seems to be associated more with the level of initial smoking and that damn motor impulsivity test. The finding that heavier smokers have a harder time quitting isn’t new and isn’t surprising, but the fact that cognitive effects and predictors of relapse change does suggest that the interventions likely to help smokers quit may need to be different during week 1 and afterward.

Overall, these findings suggest that the cognitive function problems associated with quitting smoking (or smoking in general) may recover faster than do some of the other physiological factors associated with quitting since the initial levels of smoking continued to be highly predictive throughout the 3 month period of followup. Another explanation could be that initial smoking levels affected brain function in ways not assessed by these researchers.

Since so many smokers relapse within the first week (more than 50%), it seems to me that interventions that really focus on the cognitive interference and the extreme attention towards nicotine associated cues and stimuli would be helpful for those quitting smoking. Maybe if we can reduce relapse numbers at 1 week we can have a more gradual fall-off for the following month resulting in significantly higher quit rates.

Interestingly, NIDA and other research organizations are getting really interested in the use of technologies like virtual reality for help in addiction training. It seems that in this context, these sorts of treatments might be useful in helping early quitters train to avoid that cognitive interference. Additionally, medications like modafinil, and maybe even other ADHD medication could be used very early on for those quitting smoking to help recover some of their ability to control their attention thereby reducing the power nicotine associated stimuli have over them. I guess we’ll have to wait and see as those who develop interventions start integrating this research. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from readers who have quit or tried to quit: Does this research seem to support your own experiences?

Citation:

Jane Powell, Lynne Dawkins, Robert West, John Powell and Alan Pickering (2010). Relapse to smoking during unaided cessation: clinical, cognitive and motivational predictors, Psychopharmacology.

 

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The first thing to  note in the results was the 24% of the participants were still not smoking at the 33 month followup. This seems to be about on track for the normally low success rates at 1 year though I’m sure this group will try to follow these individuals up at that point and hopefully produce another paper. The overall most reliable predictor of who quit and who relapsed ended up being the level of nicotine dependence as measured by the participants’ pre-quit attempt cotinine levels and the number of cigarettes they smoked every day. Since cotinine assessments are less biased, it was the most predictive of all throughout the experiment (# of daily cigarettes was no longer predictive at 3 months). Interestingly, self reported impulsivity and smokers’ initial ratings of cravings for cigarettes didn’t end up predicting relapse at all, but those cognitive tests assessing the quitters’ reactions to nicotine associated cues told a pretty interesting story: It seems that early on during their quitting attempt smokers who had more general interference with their cognitive function relapsed sooner. These cognitive problems can be thought of as interruption with normal thinking by nicotine-related cues and maybe even more general interference with brain function. After that point, at the 1 and 3 month follow-ups, had more to do with baseline assessments of motor impulsivity as well as those initial cotinine levels assessing the degree of nicotine dependence.

The take-home: Quitting smoking is hard for different reasons in the first week and later on

If you’ve ever tried to quit you’ve heard someone telling you that the first week is the hardest and once you make it through that the rest is a piece of cake. Well, this research doesn’t really support that notion since about 25% of the sample relapsed between each of the followups, but it does seem to indicate that the reasons for relapse change after that first week. It seems that the first week may be difficult because of general cognitive interference by stimuli and cues that are nicotine associated. Those cues make it hard to pay attention to much else and they interfere with normal thinking and attention process, making sticking to the quit attempt difficult. After that point, successfully quitting smoking was associated more with the level of initial smoking and that damn motor impulsivity test. The finding that heavier smokers have a harder time quitting isn’t new and isn’t surprising, but the fact that cognitive effects and predictors of relapse change does suggest that the interventions likely to help smokers quit may need to be different during week 1 and afterward. Overall, these findings suggest that the brain function problems associated with quitting smoking (or smoking in general) may recover faster than do some of the other physiological factors associated with quitting since the initial levels of smoking continued to be highly predictive throughout the 3 month period of followup. Another explanation could be that initial smoking levels affected brain function in ways not assessed by these researchers.

Since so many smokers relapse within the first week (more than 50%), it seems to me that interventions that really focus on the cognitive interference and the extreme attention towards nicotine associated cues and stimuli would be helpful for those quitting smoking. Maybe if we can bring the relapse numbers down at 1 week we can have a more gradual fall-out for the following month resulting in significantly higher quit rates. Interestingly, NIDA and other research organizations are getting really interested in the use of technologies like virtual reality for help in addiction training. It seems that in this context, these sorts of treatments might be useful in helping early quitters train to avoid that cognitive interference. Additionally, medication like modafinil, and maybe even other ADHD medication could be used very early on for those quitting smoking to help recover some of their ability to control their attention thereby reducing the power that nicotine associated stimuli have over them. I guess we’ll have to wait and see as those who develop interventions start integrating this research. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from readers who have quit or tried to quit: Does this research seem to support your own experiences?

Citation:

Jane Powell, Lynne Dawkins, Robert West, John Powell and Alan Pickering (2010). Relapse to smoking during unaided cessation: clinical, cognitive and motivational predictors, Psychopharmacology.

Drug use norms and expectations: Obsessions and compulsions in our society.

teensI used to always say, back in my using days, that speed (methamphetamine) was The American drug. Why? Meth makes its users sharper, more alert, and more focused, and it allowed me to spend entire nights up studying like I’d never been able to study before.

Unfortunately, like many other aspects of The American Dream, speed will also leave you spent before you know it, leaving the memories of those productive, focused, days far behind with little hope of coming back.

We live in a society that celebrates excess, be it in celebration or dedication to work, success, and achievement. Is it any wonder then that so many Americans turn whichever way they can to gain the edge that they feel they’re lacking when they compare themselves to those around them?

I read recently that many executives now keep a supply of medications like Adderall, Ritalin, and other attention deficit cures around for times when they need that extra push to stay up late and work.

We are skirting a dangerous line by putting out the message that everyone should be the best though of course, with no cheating… or at least no getting caught.

Teens are now using more and more prescription drugs while reducing, or at least not increasing, their use of many illicit, or illegal substances. How is this crisis we’re experiencing with our teens any different than the recent steroid stories exploding the mythic innocence of every American sport?

One of the things I want to inform my readers about in writing this blog is the process of addiction and the ways in which its development is often not under the control of the users, at least not the users likely to eventually develop into addicts. But, there’s also a different issue, the one having to do with what it is about our society that makes Americans so much more likely to turn to these substances in the first place???

It is estimated that more than a third (110 Million to be exact) of American have used at least one drug at some point in their lives. I don’t necessarily think that there is anything wrong per se with recreational drug use given the relatively low rates of addiction that develop from it. However, I think that drug use, even recreational use, that is meant to solve a problem or that is done as a normal part of life, is more likely to become problematic.

Some theories of addiction specifically assert that “self-medication”, as in using a drug to alleviate problems, especially psychological problems, can be a major indication of likely addiction potential. The problem is that the unsupervised use of the drug often does little to help the initial difficulties, and if anything, makes things worse as the drug user becomes more involved in the illegal drug culture. I probably don’t need to tell many of you about the social withdrawal and added psychological stress that goes along with becoming, or living with, a drug user.

My point is that we need to change the way we think about drugs in general. Drugs can be useful for many specific medical and psychological benefits, and possibly even for their recreational benefit (think Van Gough, or The Doors). But, in order to make sure that those we care about most don’t abuse and misuse drugs, we need to move away from the current attitude that seems to drive children and teens towards irresponsible, ill-informed, and dangerous drug use. By educating kids, not scaring them away from, the things that are dangerous for them.

You wouldn’t dream of teaching a child to look both ways before crossing the street by yelling at them that they better not EVER dream of setting a foot on the road without looking left first, would you?!

We teach our kids everything we think they need to know about life in order to prepare them for what’s ahead. Why is it that when it comes to drugs (and often sex), we shy away from bringing the subject up and still expect them to be well prepared when a friend says “Hey, want to pop one of these pills with me?”

There will always be those who for one reason or another are more likely to develop a problem with drugs regardless of how well prepared they are. Genetic influences on things such as low impulse control and sensation-seeking are known and are probably closely linked to some bad decision making. But even these people will benefit from being better prepared and more educated about their own choices so that when the time comes, even if a problem develops, they can hopefully acknowledge it, and deal with it, in a more capable, informed way.

We need to stop turning away from a problem and thinking it will solve itself. It’s time for us to look for answers and not rely on solutions appearing magically. They most likely won’t…

Question of the day:
Do you think that enforcement (of drug laws) or treatment (of heavy drug users)is the more effective way of dealing with the drug problem?