How to quit smoking? Think about smoking

Friday, August 06, 2010

By Wray Herbert

I quit smoking many years ago, but even today I can recall the unpleasantness of that time—the cravings, the obsessive thoughts. My strategy was to keep my mind and body busy all the time, in order to keep my thoughts of cigarettes at bay. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. I relapsed a few times before I finally quit for good.

There were quitters’ support groups available at the time, but the idea didn’t make sense to me. Why would I want to sit around with other dreary addicts and talk incessantly about the very thing I was trying to banish from my mind? Wouldn’t that just undermine my willpower and leave me more miserable?

Well, no, as it turns out. New science now suggests that the worst thing smokers can do is try not to think about cigarettes. Banishing cigarettes and matches and ashtrays from your neurons may lead temporarily to less smoking, but the banished thoughts quickly rebound—nudging smokers to light up even more than they do usually.

The research is from the University of London. Psychological scientist James Erskine and his colleagues knew from previous experiments that people find it nearly impossible to suppress any thoughts for very long. This is the famous “don’t think about white bears” research, which showed that even random thoughts take on power once we decide we want them gone. But Erskine and colleagues wanted to take this a step further—to see if banishing thoughts actually shapes our actions as well as our thinking.

Here’s the study. The scientists recruited a large group of regular smokers, both men and women in the 20s and 30s. None of the smokers were trying to quit at the time, and indeed had no intention to quit; but the researchers did ask them how many times they had tried to quit in the past. They also measured their general tendency to suppress thoughts, which varies from individual to individual.

The volunteers were then given diaries and told to record how many cigarettes they smoked every day for three weeks. They also made notations about their stress levels every day during the three weeks. Finally, they were instructed—this is important—not to alter their normal smoking patterns in any way.

After doing this for a week, some of the volunteers were given this additional instruction: “Try not to think about smoking. If you do happen to have thoughts about smoking this week, try to suppress them.” Others were told nothing, while still others were told basically the opposite—to actively try to think about cigarettes as often as possible. They all did this for a week, and then spent the third and final week again simply recording their smoking and stress.

The results were intriguing. As reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, those who tried to banish thoughts of cigarettes smoked significantly less than the others during the time they were actually suppressing their thoughts, but their puffing rebounded with a fury the following week: They smoked much more than the controls and—the most interesting finding—more than those who were indulging in thoughts of smoking. What’s more, the suppressors experienced much more stress during the time they were trying to control their thoughts—but this stress vanished in the final week as their smoking spiked.

Remember that these smokers were explicitly instructed not to change their normal smoking patterns. Yet the suppressors smoked less when they were actively controlling their thoughts. This suggests that, in the short term, suppression may really work. But that’s not necessarily a good thing for this reason: Smokers may perceive the strategy as beneficial—when in fact they are unwittingly triggering a relapse in the not-so-distant future.

Remember also that these volunteers were not even trying to quit. But when the scientists looked more closely at those who had tried to quit in the past, they tended to be those who habitually suppress unpleasant thoughts. This makes sense. The paradoxical rebound effect is no doubt even stronger in those who really, really want the craving to stop.

Wray Herbert’s new book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, will be out in September. Excerpts from the “We’re Only Human” blog appear regularly in Scientific American Mind and in The Huffington Post.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 10:34 AM 0 Comments

Why (some) people drown their sorrows

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

By Wray Herbert

Imagine that you just lost your job. The bad news came without warning—a company downsizing. You’re one more casualty of the recession. So naturally you’re feeling lousy, and what’s more, you need to go home and tell the family. But maybe, before you do, you’ll stop by your favorite watering hole for a martini—or two or three. You’ve got the time, after all.

That’s called drowning your sorrows—or, in psychological jargon, self-medication. It’s quite normal, really, to try to regulate intense negative emotions in whatever way possible, and liquor is a quick and effective strategy. But it’s not a healthy strategy—and the fact is, not everyone does it. While some of us turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with life’s curveballs, others seem to muddle through their travails in other ways.

So what’s the difference between those who use booze to cope and those who don’t? What’s going on in the mind or your co-worker, who also got a pink slip but drives right past the tavern? Doesn’t he feel bad, too?

No doubt he does, but new research suggests that you and your co-worker may have very different cognitive styles—different ways of appraising the same blunt negative emotions. While you may know that you feel “bad” and leave it at that, others may parse that global negativity: I feel angry at the boss; disappointed in myself; scared for my family. Simply knowing that one feels bad is not very useful, but more precise and fine-grained analysis conveys a richer understanding of bad feelings—and that understanding may actually lower risk of using (and abusing) alcohol as a coping mechanism.

At least that’s the theory, which George Mason University psychological scientist Todd Kashdan has been testing out in the lab. He suspected that people who are unskilled at differentiating their bad feelings would be more likely to dwell on those feelings and misinterpret them—making them worse—and that this would lead to self-medication. Here’s how he tested that idea.

He recruited a large group of social drinkers from the community, and had them monitor their drinking for three weeks using a hand-held electronic diary. They also kept track of their emotions during this time, recording when something made them feel angry or fatigued or anxious or distracted—and rating the intensity of those emotions. They did this when they were randomly prompted, and they also paid special attention to their feelings right before and after drinking. Kashdan used all this data to rate all the volunteers on how coarsely or finely they analyzed their emotions.

The idea was to see if those who were more precise in analyzing their own emotions were also less apt to drown their sorrows. And they were, clearly. As reported in the journal Psychological Science, those with intense negative emotions during the three weeks drank less if they thought about those feelings in more nuanced ways. It appears that people who can deconstruct their bad feelings in times of distress have more self-understanding—making it easier to manage problems and plan real coping strategies—not just numbing.

Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, will be published by Crown in September. Excerpts from the “We’re Only Human” blog appear regularly in The Huffington Post and Scientific American Mind.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 12:33 PM 1 Comments