The interesting thing about the biochemistry of the brain is the way it influences our behavior and feelings. Not only that, but what we eat and how we think can change our brains. The other interesting thing? We own our brains. They belong to us. Our dopamine and serotonin and norepinephrine? Ours. Our brains learn to do what we teach them to do. If we douse them in nicotine, they learn to react to nicotine. And when we take the nicotine away, we can retrain our brains.
Understanding yourself and the way your brain works is a good first step. Check out our ebook, “What is Your Smoker Personality” to learn more.
Nicotine has a strange effect on concentration and stress. Every smoker and former smoker knows that nicotine both reduces feelings of stress and increases concentration in the short-term, and quickly. We learn really fast how to get this jolt of mental focus. It's not uncommon for students who quit smoking in the middle of the semester to suddenly forget how to study or even forget how to read. The words just float around the room like they're living zero-gravity. We can find ourselves holding a book (is it even in English?) or staring at a screen with no idea what to do with it or how we got there. Not permanent! You haven't had a stroke! We need to retrain our brains to learn how to concentrate.
Nicotine gives the brain a sharp chemical jolt. Concentration rises quickly, but then drops quickly. Brain games can train your brain to concentrate, but it doesn't feel the same as when you smoked. The rise is gradual, but higher; it lasts longer and over time you can access your own ability to concentrate quickly.
Just like we are not in a fight with our brains for dominion, our brains are not in a fight with our bodies. Everything influences everything else. It's all one connected system. That means nutrition, exercise, and other body-practices like meditation directly affect the biochemistry of the brain.
- Meditation is a concentration practice- you teach your brain how to concentrate by teaching it how to not concentrate. That's the sort of thing meditation people say that makes the rest of us want to push them off a cliff.
- Meditation is a concentration practice. Concentration is not the same as thinking.
- Picture the iconic mouse on a small exercise wheel going round and round and round. That is thinking. Picture the wheel. No mouse, no movement. Keep picturing the wheel. Don't let it move. Don't think about it. Just see it. That's meditation.
- You learn to concentrate without thinking, (also known as meditation) and this practice lets your brain relearn how to concentrate with thinking, so you can finish your degree and go change the world.
- Some people find that the best way to keep themselves meditating rather than thinking is by moving meditation, a mind-body integration. If your hands are moving, you can focus on what you're doing without thinking. If your feet keep moving forward, you can concentrate without thinking.
- Learn to knit, and then knit long squares and rectangles. Maybe even triangles if you are very daring. Don't worry about counting stitches, just do it. Over time, the repetitive nature of the movements is both relaxing and lets the mind focus just the same as nicotine used to do.
- Start taking hikes or walks. Don't think, just keep moving forward. This type of mind-body integration trains the muscles and the brain to work together just as if you were one person. Oh, wait! You are one person! Exercise floods your muscles and your brain with lovely, self-made biochemicals.
- With both the knitting and the walking, it's the rhythm and the repetition that lets the mind and body start to work in concert--moving meditation.
Trying a new practice like one of the meditation practices might be more successful with a stepped approach that involves goals and rewards.
- Memorize a poem or an equation, something out of your usual comfort zone. Don't be alarmed if you can't remember anything with the skill you did at age 12; it's a learned skill that can come back. It doesn't matter if you don't understand the meaning--that's a different skill entirely.
- Learn to say and write several phrases in another language. Then read them. Three different skills; three different parts of the brain engaged. Bonus points if your poem or equation is in a foreign language!
- Your brain is more sensitive to the effects of caffeine and sugar after you quit smoking, so pay attention to how much you're using and how it makes you feel.
- Give yourself an enjoyment grade (A to F) at the time you eat or drink something unhealthy and delicious, then a follow-up grade 30 minutes later.
- Next day, give yourself a grade when you eat something healthy and delicious. Now, a follow-up grade 30 minutes later.
- Over time, learn to evaluate how you feel after you eat, not just as you're eating. This way you can learn how the rest of your body feels about your food choices. The micronutrients in healthy food are directly responsible for healthy brain biochemistry. But this exercise is not about food--it's about mindfulness.
Finishing one task or job, and moving on to the next, is a common trigger and habit for smokers. Going from the house to the car, getting off the metro or the bus, finishing work and walking outside--anytime you have a comma or period in the sentence of your day, you would normally smoke.
Over time, your brain biochemistry will normalize. Your body and mind will start working together. You will once again be able to focus, concentrate, and learn. Your muscles, your brain, your heart and lungs will be flush with oxygen.
Your personality plays a major role in why you smoke which ultimately determines how, when, and if you will successfully become a non-smoker. To learn more about your personality type and the behaviours, and triggers associated with it, check out this free guide.