The Grapevine

What Causes Ex-Smokers To Relapse? Loss Of Identity, Study Says

For many ex-smokers, losing the cigarette could also mean losing an integral part of their social identity. And attempting to recapture that may be a common reason why people end up relapsing, according to new findings.

The study titled “Redefining smoking relapse as recovered social identity — secondary qualitative analysis of relapse narratives” was published in the Journal of Substance Use on July 2.

“Although many people do manage to quit, relapse is very common,” said lead researcher Dr. Caitlin Notley, a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia, England. “Of course we know that smoking is physically addictive, and there has been research about the psychological side of it — but this assumes that people are unable to resist physical urges, or are vulnerable to social cues.”

The researchers aimed to explore other social factors that might play a role. They conducted interviews with 43 people who talked about their history of smoking, when and how they tried to quit, and whether they succeeded or failed at it. The participant group was then narrowed down to 23 people who were able to provide the most in-depth and detailed information regarding their relapse. 

It was found most people associated their relapse with a range of emotional triggers.

“When people attempt to quit smoking, what they are really doing is attempting to bury part of their old identity and reconfigure a new one,” Dr. Notley said.

Close relationships and the social environment can be prominent influences on people, especially adolescents who have highly impressionable minds. And this can be observed when someone first takes up smoking.

But when they lose their smoker identity, it may also be accompanied with losing a group membership of sorts. They may have to give up social circles and connections they built over a long period. At times, the groups they have been a part of since their teenage years.

As a result, craving their lost social identity (i.e. their smoker identity) may often be the driving force behind ex-smokers picking up a cigarette again. 

The researchers also revealed the many triggers people associated with their relapse. Some would rationalize a one-time “treat” after successfully abstaining for a long period, one which ultimately got them hooked again. Others reported stressful situations that drove them back to using smoking as a coping mechanism.

Emotional reactions involved feelings of pleasure, not just from the smoking itself, but also by “regaining the previous smoker identity,” the authors wrote.

“However, at the point of relapse, individuals simultaneously experienced guilt, shame or embarrassment,” they added. 

Whether someone wants to quit cold turkey or slowly reduce their use of cigarettes, the study highlighted the importance of psychological triggers. Understanding these symptoms, distracting oneself during the peak of their craving, and transforming their social identity can be effective ways to quit the habit for good.

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