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Stop Smoking - Positive Approaches

by Ursula Markham(more info)

listed in hypnosis, originally published in issue 85 - February 2003

On any given day there are literally thousands of people trying to kick the smoking habit. And so desperate are they that they will try almost anything – from the sensible to the ridiculous. Yet many of them fail, some of them again and again – why is this and what can be done about it?

Quitting 'cold turkey' may work for some – but those for whom will power alone is sufficient are very few indeed. Others may be prescribed chewing gum or patches containing nicotine to help them as they try to withdraw from their cigarettes, cigars or pipe tobacco.

It is true that some people find these artificial aids helpful but, in the majority of cases, those people tend to return to smoking once they have given them up – or, indeed, become addicted to the cure.

It is also possible to be helped to give up smoking by means of acupuncture but, here too, the long-term results do not seem to be satisfactory once the treatment itself has come to an end.

Most experts would agree that the best method would seem to be one which is non-invasive and which allows the smoker to use his or her most positive asset – the power of their own mind – to achieve their aim. And this is where techniques such as hypnotherapy, NLP or other behavioural therapies come into their own.

The would-be non-smoker has three main problems to overcome: desire, habit and addiction.



The desire to give up smoking has to be genuine or nothing will be effective in the long-term. And there is the world of difference between saying or thinking "I want to give up smoking" and "I think I should give up smoking". As a hypnotherapist, I will not accept as a patient anyone who cannot tell me in all honesty that they really want to stop smoking for ever. The reason for that desire does not matter – and they can be many and varied – provided the desire is real and is their own. The fact that the office has become a non-smoking zone or that their spouse or partner wishes them to give up smoking will not do. The desire has to come from within.

The reason for wanting to give up smoking often concerns health – the smoker's or someone else's. We can no longer fool ourselves that smoking will not harm us if we continue – there is too much evidence to the contrary. Some people will want to give up because they have begun to experience respiratory or throat difficulties; others will be frightened of developing lung cancer in the future. Some will realize that it is ludicrous to be concerned about what they eat and drink and the fact that they take regular vitamin supplements and then to poison their systems by continuing to smoke. Yet others will be frightened of the effect their smoking has upon their children.

Money and the cost of smoking rarely comes into it. Somehow, whatever else they may have to do without and however high the prices of tobacco products may rise, the smoker will always find the cash.


Sheila was the single mother of an eight-year old son. She was a local radio presenter living and working in the East Midlands. She had been smoking since she was about fourteen years old starting, as so many do, because she thought it made her look grown-up and sophisticated.

By the time I met her, Sheila had been smoking about twenty cigarettes a day for many years. She had tried, unsuccessfully, to give up the habit on several occasions; the best she had achieved was doing without cigarettes for a couple of weeks at a time. Always at the back of her mind had been the thought that her young son might be affected by her smoking so, for a while, she had avoided smoking in his presence. But, of course, he was always able to smell that aroma of stale tobacco which gives away any smoker and would often comment on this fact.

Then one day Sheila read an article in a women's magazine. It stated that the children of smokers, however disapproving they might initially appear to be of the habit, were many times more likely to become smokers themselves than the children of parents who did not smoke. The thought suddenly struck her that, although she might well go through life and escape any of the possible ills which accompany smoking, suppose – just suppose – her son became a smoker because of her and suppose his life was crippled or even cut short by some nicotine-induced illness.

Sheila had found her reason to quit. She could not bear to think that her beloved son might suffer dreadfully just because she was not able to stop smoking. She had to do something about it. That's when she came to see me and we began to work together.

Mother and child

Playing on Fears

Unkind as it may seem, emphasizing whatever it is that the person fears is a powerful way of reinforcing their essential desire to give up smoking.

I have known hypnotherapists and NLP practitioners who use strong visual images to demonstrate what might happen if what the patient fears should ever come to pass.

Becoming a non-smoker

It is essential that the patient realizes that what he or she is aiming for is to become a non-smoker. There is no point in telling yourself that you will "just have two cigarettes a day" or "only smoke when having a cup of coffee after a meal". If that is in your mind, forget it because it just will not work. Those two cigarettes will soon become three… or five… or ten… and before long you will be back where you started.

Similarly, you may well find yourself drinking an excess of coffee merely to increase the number of occasions when you can have a cigarette!


People have very different habits when it comes to smoking. While one person smokes when under pressure, another will see cigarettes as an integral part of relaxation. One will not contemplate having a drink – whether alcohol or a cup of tea – without smoking at the same time while another has only to hear the sound of the telephone ringing to light a cigarette before even lifting the receiver.

Part of the behavioural therapist's role is to help the smoker recognise their own set of triggers. What is it that makes them smoke? Do they light the first cigarette before even pulling on their dressing gown in the morning? Do they need one to steady their nerves before an important meeting or an interview? Do they feel uncomfortable if they find themselves in a social situation and they have nothing to do with their hands? Or are they simply unable to resist when someone proffers that open packet in their direction?

Once someone is aware of their own trigger, there are two things they can do. The first is to learn to hear some sort of imaginary alarm bell warning them to be careful as this could be a dangerous moment. The second is to plan to have something else at hand to take the place of the cigarette. Perhaps, when that telephone rings, they could immediately pick up a pencil and pad before lifting the receiver – they would not be able to select and light a cigarette at the same time.

Hypnotherapists will often persuade the person's subconscious mind that, should they ever select and light a cigarette out of habit, the first puff of that cigarette will cause them to experience the most unpleasant taste sensation they have ever known. Indeed, in many cases, they will be encouraged to go one step further and visualise the foulness which is causing that taste spreading throughout their mouth, throat and lungs, contaminating everything with which it comes into contact. Naturally, before ending the session, the therapist will remove that experience so that the patient does not have to go around feeling ill or being aware of a dreadful taste in the mouth.

This particular technique is not designed to make the patient unwell and, because there is no magic wand in hypnotherapy, should the person concerned continue to smoke that foul-tasting cigarette, after a few puffs it will begin to taste normal again. The suggestion is simply a 'memory-jogger'; it is there to make the patient aware that, out of habit, they have taken a cigarette and to remind them that they are now a non-smoker and so they should put it out as quickly as possible.

Although techniques such as NLP can also be effective in stopping smoking, my personal view is that hypnotherapy is the most powerful. This is because, in the altered state of hypnosis, the therapist is able to address the subject's subconscious mind. Of course it is possible to say all the same things to somebody without inducing that altered state – and their common sense would probably lead them to agree with you completely.

But, if that were sufficient to cause them to give up their cigarettes, they probably would not need help in the first place. It is the subconscious mind which governs most of what we do; if ever there is a conflict between the desires of the conscious and the subconscious mind, the subconscious will win every time. In my view, it is essential, therefore, to address the subconscious mind when trying to help someone reinforce their desire or overcome their habit.

In addition, your subconscious mind is active and protective at all times whereas your conscious mind can shut down – when you go to sleep, for example. It seems logical, therefore, to work in conjunction with the subconscious mind as much as possible as it is better to have a full-time ally rather than a part-time one. By far the best way of reaching and addressing the subconscious mind is by means of hypnosis

It is essential that, from the very first moment, the patient is encouraged to think of him or herself as a non-smoker, as opposed to a person who is trying to give up smoking. The latter allows for the possibility of failure while the former does not. Even if the subject gives into temptation once or twice during the first week of treatment, they should learn to think of themselves as a non-smoker who slipped a couple of times rather than someone who is trying to stop but has failed.


Affirmations, whether spoken aloud or written down and read, can be helpful when giving up smoking. They are unlikely to be sufficient on their own but they can certainly help to reinforce the mind-set of the person concerned. But, just as they have to learn to think of themselves as a non-smoker, affirmations have to be composed in such a way that the subconscious comes to accept that the desired aim has already been reached.

Some people like to write their affirmations on small cards which they can carry around with them and take out from time to time during the day in order to read them. Others find it useful to write the affirmations on the type of coloured 'post-it' notelets which can be easily stuck on walls, doors, etc., and removed at will. The latter method seems particularly effective as it is not even necessary to read deliberately what has been written; the brain will automatically see and take in the words and they will emphasise what is already going on in the subconscious mind.


The more powerful and more descriptive the imagery used by the therapist, the more effective it will be. Again, this would seem to be particularly beneficial when used as part of hypnotherapy treatment because the imagery could be linked in the subconscious mind to the trigger situation – so that the one would always lead to the other.

A typical example of the sort of imagery which can be used is to ask the patient to visualise a busy motorway or dual carriageway road on a very hot day when the surface of that road may become a little softer and slightly sticky. Then ask them to imagine that same road surface on a cool day when it has reached maximum hardness again – hard enough for vehicle after vehicle to pass over without leaving any mark. Remind them that the surface of that road is tar – the very substance to be found in their cigarettes and therefore in their lungs. Soft and pliable it may be when it is first inhaled as it is still warm. But, let it cool down, and those lungs are coated with a substance which is hard enough to bear the weight of innumerable heavy vehicles. Their own imagination will tell them what will happen if that coating is allowed to become too thick.

Weight gain

It is not unusual for smokers – particularly women – to use as an excuse for maintaining the habit the fact that they fear they will put on weight should they give up smoking. It is not true that they will necessarily do so in the long-term, provided, of course, that they do not eat more than previously.

Because smoking can affect the fluid balance in the body, it is possible that, even if the identical diet is maintained, the former smoker may put on a few pounds in the weeks immediately after quitting. But, as the body becomes accustomed to the new regime and adjusts itself accordingly, those pounds will automatically disappear. The main reason for people putting on weight after giving up smoking is that they are so used to doing something with their hands and mouths that they tend to substitute snacks for cigarettes.


If, by means of some mind or behavioural technique, the individual has been helped to overcome both desire and habit, the addiction will, in time, take care of itself. And, contrary to former belief, this happens more quickly than people often expect. The same is not true, of course, when nicotine patches or chewing gum are used as, although it may be present in diminishing quantities, nicotine continues to be artificially fed into the body.

Long-term success

The benefits of using a mind- influencing technique when stopping smoking are twofold. In the first place, as well as having succeeded in what they wished to achieve, the smoker has the added satisfaction of knowing that they have done it themselves, rather than having made use of some more invasive technique.

This can greatly enhance their confidence and self-esteem which can only be a good thing. Secondly, should there ever be a reason why – at any time in the future – they are tempted to begin smoking again, they can use the same technique to stop again, often in a very short time.


With the aid of a hypnotherapist Paul gave up smoking at the age of 24.

For the next couple of years he was not even tempted to look at a cigarette again. Then he had a very difficult year when his father suffered a serious illness and eventually died. A friend, meaning to be helpful, offered the distressed Paul a cigarette, thinking it would help him at a difficult time in his life – and, without thinking about it, the young man accepted it. Over the next few days he found himself beginning to smoke again.

Most hypnotherapists, having helped someone to give up smoking, will teach that person self-hypnosis so that, should there ever be a problem in the future, they can repeat the therapy for themselves. This is what had happened to Paul. As soon as he realised that he was in danger of becoming a smoker once more, he used the technique he had been taught and, within a week, had given up completely again. He has never smoked since.

Further Information

The author has published numerous books, including Hypnotherapy, Managing Stress, Women Under Pressure, Your Four-Point Plan For Life, Living With Change, Memory Power, How To Deal With Difficult People, Life Scripts, How To Survive Without A Job, Women And Guilt, Creating A Positive Self Image, Bereavement, Miscarriage, The Ultimate Stress Handbook For Women, Childhood Trauma.

She has also produced a range of self-help cassettes which include: Stop Smoking, Lose Weight, Self-Hypnosis, Gain Confidence, Overcome Migraine, Overcome PMT, Hypnosis As A Study Aid, Dealing With Bereavement, Overcome Insomnia, Overcome Asthma, Overcome Depression, Pass The Driving Test.


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About Ursula Markham

Ursula Markham DHyp, MHF, MNCH(Acc.), FHS, MGHR has been a practising hypnotherapist since 1979 and is Principal of The Hypnothink Foundation, which trains hypnotherapists to professional level. She has lectured widely on the subject to organisations in the UK and overseas and appears frequently on television and radio. Her latest book, The Beginner's Guide To Self-Hypnosis was published in October 2002 by Vega. Ursula can be contacted at: The Hypnothink Foundation. Tel: 01452 731128.

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