Nicotine alters brain to trick you into keeping up the habit

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of columns about smoking cessation from medical professionals at Providence St. Mary Medical Center.

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As an oncology social worker, I am reminded daily of the havoc cigarettes wreak on the human body.

Why is it so difficult to quit smoking, even in the face of a life threatening illness?

Is it really a matter of willpower? What if you were told your repeated act of smoking has "tricked" your mind into believing that without tobacco, you would not survive, literally?

That not only would life not be worth living, but you would not be able to cope without smoking. And, to quit smoking would be just as difficult as starving yourself to death!

This is exactly what happens once you begin to smoke. Nicotine creates mood-altering as well as physical effects in your brain that are temporarily pleasing, similar in general terms to other drugs such as heroin, speed, cocaine -- granted, rendering different effects, but deceptively pleasing -- and debilitating and potentially deadly.

In very simple terms, here's how it works: Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that functions to create cravings that actually keep us alive.

Dopamine creates the pathways in the brain that drive us to eat and drink. Nicotine, simply speaking, captures dopamine and hard-wires a neuropathway into our conscious memory that convinces us that getting more nicotine is as important as eating our next meal.

Hence, we become dependent or addicted. This new state of dependency erases any memory of our pre-dependency life. What's more, attempting to stop smoking only further convinces us that we cannot stop, as we experience withdrawal symptoms of anxiety, irritability, sleep disturbance, changes in appetite and loss of concentration.

The good news is, we can "outwit" our dependency. There are many smoking cessation programs available, including at Providence St Mary Regional Cancer Center.

If you can't make it to a local program, there are countless resources online to help you stop smoking.

Once you make it through the withdrawal by using techniques provided in the smoking cessation programs, you will begin to experience again the long-forgotten calmness of the pre-dependent life. However, successful recovery means never taking another puff of tobacco.

In fact, when you have smoked your last cigarette, throw out all your tobacco products. Discarding your tobacco is a ceremony that bids farewell to an old way of life and marks a new beginning.

The biggest challenge will be learning how to deal with friends, family members and coworkers who still smoke.

You may need to make changes in your lifestyle that will limit the time you spend with them if they are not able to respect your need for a smoke-free environment.

The best news of all is you can be successful and never smoke another cigarette!

Barbara Bates, who has a masters in social work, is an oncology social worker at Providence St. Mary Regional Cancer Center.

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