Aug 05

Mark Twain said, “Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.” Well, we all know: quitting smoking reduces the risk of terrible illnesses like cancer and cardiovascular disease. It increases fertility levels, breathing and overall fitness. Another benefit of quitting is enjoying the taste of food again. You will look and smell better and on top of it all, save a lot of money.  Why then is it so hard for many to stop the habit – or addiction – of smoking?

The reasons for smoking addiction can be cut down to 2 important factors: nicotine and habits.

Nicotine, for one, is a highly addictive substance that occurs naturally in tobacco, and hooks your brain by stimulating it with a shot of dopamine, the hormone that tells us that food and sex are pleasurable. It also increases activity in areas of the brain that are believed to be involved in cognitive functions, so a cigarette can make you feel sharper and more focused. As if that weren’t enough, nicotine also increases the endorphin levels, the proteins that give you feelings of euphoria. Needless to say that having a ‘tool’ that can make you feel better in these ways, is something you don’t give it up easily. Quitting may leave you feeling deprived, and you may exhibit serious withdrawal symptoms if you have to go without nicotine.

Another important factor for this specific kind of addiction is habits – the patterns that are involved in smoking. Smoking behavior usually becomes closely linked with daily activities and ‘cues’ such as: after a meal, when socializing with friends, to ‘take a break’, when under stress (to relax), when relaxing (to relax further), etc. These aspects of smoking can be just as challenging to overcome as the physical dependence.

Consequently, most people who want to quit smoking once and for all, require an approach that deals with both vulnerabilities: the addiction itself and the behavioral aspects of it. The current ‘traps’ have to be identified and after that, new patterns and routines to be developed that make it easier to ‘skip’ the impulse to look for a cigarette. Hypnotherapy can support in this aspect by allowing our mind to adapt to the new behavior, but it can’t do wonders without the patient’s strong dedication  to getting rid of their smoking addiction. The first few weeks without cigarettes are usually the hardest. After 8-12 weeks, most individuals who make it that far start to feel more comfortable without smoking. Still, only 3 in 10 people can successfully stop smoking once and for all.

(This short article is part of a weekly series dealing with psychological expat problems and general mental health issues and was published in various newspapers and magazines in Thailand, 2011)

Nov 18

How can we become happier in our lives, and what do we need to stay happy?

Researchers have put a lot of effort into answering these questions and came up with some interesting facts that define the scientific basis of the so-called ‘positive psychology’. Today we know that about 50% of one’s happiness depends on his or her genes. About 10-15% are a result of different measurable life circumstances variables, such as socioeconomic status, marital status, health, income, sex, age and others. Research in the US, for instance, has found that older Americans are generally happier than younger adults, or that 28% of those with an annual income of $35,000 described themselves as happy while 38% were of those bringing home $75,000 or more a year. The remaining 40% of factors influencing happiness, however, are mostly the results of actions that individuals deliberately engage in to become happier. This is also where we can also deliberately start to change something right away: physical exercise or eating chocolate, for example, are both proven to release endorphines which make us feel more energetic and happy. Proximity to other happy people was also found to be an important factor – if we have a tendency to isolate ourselves or to get stuck in negative emotions out of an inability to communicate them effectively or to resolve difficult situations, it comes as no surprise that happiness will not be a frequent visitor in our homes. Even worse: if conflicts are not resolved, we frequently end up in a downward spiral that can cause chronic distress, frustration and anger, and ultimately develop psychosomatic illness.

There is also extensive research data available now suggesting that religious people are happier and less stressed. It is not clear, however, whether this is because of the social contact and support that result from religious activities, the greater likelihood of behaviors related to good health (such as less substance abuse), or of a generally greater peace of mind (‘reason for being’, ‘life after death’). However, in countries where being without religion is not unusual, the happiness rates have to be found higher as well. So there is still much to be learned about the factors that influence happiness – but while we wait for the results, we can still aspire to improve the 40% we have control over.

(This short article is part of a weekly series dealing with psychological expat problems and general mental health issues and was published in various newspapers and magazines in Thailand, 2010)