Women sitting on floor after quitting smokingMaybe you’d like to quit smoking but you’re nervous about the amount of time it’ll take for you to stop being dependent on nicotine. Maybe you’ve already quit but are still going through withdrawal symptoms and are wondering when they’ll subside.

If you’ve already started your journey to be free of cigarettes, you’ve made the right choice. And if you’re nervous to quit smoking, that’s ok! The most important thing is that you’re ridding yourself of an addiction that comes with lots of health risks.

However, beating addiction isn’t easy and many smokers report that they actually feel worse after quitting smoking. Read on to learn why this is and how to stay the course and resist the urge to grab a cigarette.

The Science Behind Addiction

Addiction is a long-lasting and complex brain disease.4 Many smokers reach for a cigarette to escape, relax and reward themselves.1 Smoking is a physiological and psychological addiction that people use to escape, relax, and reward themselves.1 Temporary changes in brain chemistry cause you to experience decreased anxiety, enhanced pleasure, and relaxation.4

Addictive drugs activate reward regions in the brain, causing releases of dopamine.2 The hardwiring of the brain changes after becoming addicted to the substance, hijacking the pleasure and reward circuits in your brain.4 Many smokers may find themselves reaching for a cigarette in the same moment, day after day: with their morning coffee, while driving, or while being around other smokers.3 This repetitive behavior triggers your desire to smoke.3 The combination of environmental triggers and the smoker’s adjusted brain chemistry can motivate drug-seeking behaviors like reaching for a cigarette.3 Conditioned responses become deeply ingrained and can trigger strong cravings for a drug long after use has stopped.3

A large factor in addiction is the fact that over time, ordinary “rewards” lose their motivational power.2 The brain has been rewired through conditioning to focus on the release of dopamine through cigarettes.2 However, research has shown that drug consumption, including that of nicotine, triggers smaller releases of dopamine as opposed to nonsmokers.2 Those who are addicted to nicotine eventually stop feeling the same level of pleasure that they did when they first became addicted, and may find themselves reaching for cigarettes more frequently in order to obtain the rewarding feeling of dopamine.2 This change in behavior and brain chemistry becomes deeply ingrained and cannot be immediately eliminated or reversed by cutting out cigarettes; it’s a long process to return to normal, and short acting effects contribute to the vicious cycle.2

While it may take time for the brain to repair itself, the body gets to work right away. The Quit Smoking Timeline breaks down how your body heals itself once you’ve quit smoking.

How Long Do Withdrawal Symptoms Last?

Nicotine is out of your body within 72 hours after your last cigarette and you’ll start to experience nicotine withdrawal.1 Almost immediately, your body will be craving the drug and the emotional response of the dopamine hit. These cravings usually hit their peak with 2 to 3 days after you’ve quit smoking and may subside within 1 to 3 months.1 However, some people may experience several months of withdrawals and occasional cravings may last for 6 months.1,3

So even though you’ve quit smoking, you may feel irritable, frustrated, or anxious. It’s possible that you may also feel sad or experience depressed moods for weeks after you’ve had your last cigarette.3 You may find yourself thinking, “I quit smoking, why do I feel worse?”. While many symptoms of withdrawal may subside within a few weeks or months, each person is different. Remind yourself that these feelings are temporary.

When you experience cravings, remind yourself of the reasons you decided to quit and the problems associated with relapsing.3 You may find that nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products can help you get some relief from your cravings, but you should talk to your doctor before starting any of them.

Making the decision to quit smoking and breaking the cycle of addiction is important and has many immediate and long-term benefits. Sticking to your decision and resisting the urge to smoke can be difficult, especially when confronted with powerful withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Find support in your friends and family and speak with a healthcare provider about NRT products or medications to help you quit.

  1. How To Quit Smoking Plan: 8 Steps to Quitting For Good. Addictions and Recovery. Accessed September 21, 2021.
  2. Neurobiologic Advances from the Brain Disease Model of Addiction. New England Journal of Medicine. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMra1511480?af=R&rss=currentIssue. Accessed September 21, 2021.
  3. How to Handle Withdrawal Symptoms and Triggers When You Decide to Quit Smoking. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/tobacco/withdrawal-fact-sheet. Accessed September 21, 2021.
  4. Biology of Addiction. National Institute of Health. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2015/10/biology-addiction. Accessed September 21, 2021.