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Read this before trying to quit smoking ‘cold turkey’

Like the phrase itself, the “cold turkey” method of quitting smoking can be confusing. What does it mean to quit this way, and does it work?

The most accepted meaning of quitting cold turkey is “to quit abruptly with no treatment support or replacement medications,” according to Dr. J. Taylor Hays, a Mayo Clinic College of Medicine professor and director of the Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center. Hays authors a regular blog on BecomeAnEX®, the digital quit-smoking program developed by Truth Initiative® in collaboration with Mayo Clinic.

“This idea is closely tied to a long-standing misconception that the most effective method for quitting is to ‘white knuckle it’ with willpower alone,” writes Hays.

Relying on willpower alone, however, is not likely to be successful. Research over the past 25 years has shown that, out of 100 people trying to quit smoking cold turkey, only about three to five of them will succeed for longer than six months, according to Hays. In other words, while some people can quit this way, at least 95 percent of people can’t.

Quitting cold turkey has such a low success rate due to the nature of addiction. Addiction undermines willpower, or the ability to control impulses through decision-making.

“Addiction is a chronic disease that changes the structure of the brain and affects many areas, particularly those that influence decision-making, behavior control and learning. It works on a very primitive, instinctual level that often bypasses or impairs our brain’s higher-level functioning,” writes Hays.

While willpower by itself is not an effective quit method, it can still be useful for those trying to quit. “Willpower has a place in recovery as a tool to help us focus on and prepare our plans for quitting,” writes Hays. “It is, however, not very effective as a means to control cravings to smoke because addiction simply functions on a different level.”

What is an effective way to quit smoking? Follow these 10 steps to make a quit plan and set yourself up for the best chance of successfully quitting. You can also visit BecomeAnEX for proven-effective quitting resources, including interactive tools to help you prepare for quitting and a supportive community to help make this quit your last.

Read more on this topic with Hays’ blog posts on BecomeAnEX, “Does Cold Turkey Work Best?” and “Willpower and Addiction.”

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