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magic smoking question

Magic smoking question case

Every smoker is different

This case shows the power of the magic smoking question. A young woman came for stop smoking hypnotherapy. She told me that she really wanted to stop because of possible health issues in the future. She had no health issues now. I asked if she had ever stopped. She said that she had stopped once for three months but then started again when she arrived in this country. She liked to use cigarettes to break the ice at social events and meeting people. I couldn't get any real reason for why she wanted to give up. She told me she liked smoking and smoked whenever she could. Nobody was allowed to smoke at work so she smoked on the way to work, and after she got home at night. Even so she was getting through 15 cigarettes a day.

She said that she liked to smoke when she was stressed. Sometimes she would deliberately pick a fight with her boyfriend so that she would feel bad. That meant she could go outside and have a smoke to calm down. She did other things to provoke these feelings that let her light up to relieve the stress. Although she was completely honest and open about it, at the same time she wanted to hide her smoking from her parents back home and the people she worked with. She agreed that smoking was her secret and she got a bit of thrill out of that.

Asking the magic smoking question

I was at a bit of loss as to how to start with this client so I decided to ask her my favorite question 'What do you feel when I say "you will never have another cigarette as long as you live''?

Her answer was 'anger'. She felt angry at the idea that she would not be able to smoke again. She felt that she was being prevented from doing something that special to her.

I had never come across this particular response before. But it was an emotion and whenever an emotion surfaces I always do a metaphor replacement therapy on it. In this case I got her to visualize the anger, she saw it as a black triangle, made of squishy sponge, light and soft. You could squeeze the water out of it, but it would always fill up again.

I got her to imagine making the triangle a little smaller, and then a little smaller still. It stopped being able to hold water, and then she tore it in half and put the bits in the bin.

I asked what she felt about smoking now, and she said 'I think I can stop smoking now'!

I find the power of that simple question quite extraordinary. And just as extraordinary is the fact that smokers have these rather bizarre beliefs that stop them stopping.

I love doing smokers, no two are ever the same.

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smoking control

Smoking Control hypnosis

Some hypnotists don't like working with smokers because they think that smokers are all the same. They  treat every smoker with the same routines. I don't.

I find smokers endlessly fascinating: every smoker is unique. They each have a unique reason for smoking and a unique reason for keeping on smoking. When you find the reason you have found the solution.

I dealt with a smoker today who wasn't able to give up. She was a middle aged lady who could stop but always started again whenever she got stressed. I spent some time talking to her about why she smokes and particularly why she always starts again and she really had no idea. She had spent many hours thinking about it but never came up with an answer.

Smoking Control

But when I started probing when she started smoking, a pattern started to emerge. She started at school, with a few sneaked cigarettes with the other girls. She did not start smoking properly until she was eighteen. After leaving home, she got a job and a flat, and was having a lovely time away from the controls of her parents. She then shared that her dad hated smoking, and always had, and her mother thought it was unlady-like.

What I think  was actually happening was that she was flouting her parents' rule, showing independence and even rebellion. She was having a great time doing it. Unknown to her, she was actually anchoring that feeling of independence to smoking. So later in life, whenever she felt things getting on top of her, when she felt put down and out of control, she reached for a cigarette. Smoking unconsciously reminded of those times and that feeling. The feeling therefore got reinforced thousands of times.

Smoking control pattern

When she gives up, she is fine for days or weeks or even months. But then some situation comes along that makes her long to be in control again, to assert her independence, and the cravings for a cigarette start again. I think that her mind was dwelling on the missing feeling, and that was anchored onto smoking, so she found excuses to smoke.

Once the origin of the pattern had been established it was easy to target it with metaphors and suggestions.

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smoking to relax

Smoking to relax

I had another interesting client today. This was another smoker who just can not give up. His story was that he was smoking to relax. He doesn't smoke a lot, five to fifteen a day, but must have his cigarette at various times of the day. He smokes on the walk between the train and his work, then at break times, at lunchtime and on the walk back to the train. But he does not smoke in the house. The reason he gave was that smoking was his time to himself. I have heard this many times and never paid much attention to it.

Smoking to relax?

However I couldn't find any reason why this man was smoking.  I will not go on with hypnosis until I know why they smoke, or I get a way into their world that I can use. This man said that he gave up once for a week, when he went on a camping holiday in Scotland on his own. He stopped for the whole week and never gave it a thought until he returned home. And immediately lit up again. He also said that he gave up when he came to this country for a job interview and spent three days in a hotel preparing and actually forgot that he smoked. He does not normally smoke as a response to stress at work, and if he is really busy will forget to smoke all day. Not smoking on a plane for ten hours doesn't bother him either.

I have a theory that you always have to examine the other side of the coin, what people are not doing, as well as what they are doing. I asked him what it was that he needed time to himself for. He said he had responsibility for his family and always worried about them. I pointed out that this could not be true when he started smoking. We pursued this idea of what it was that he was trying to avoid. I asked how he got on with his parents and siblings. He said he never got on with his dad. Then I dug into that and discovered that his father had divorced from his mother when the client was thirteen years old. He also said that he was afraid of his father. And that put the whole thing into perspective.

Reason for smoking

As a boy he felt he had to defend his mother in her time of need, and look after her, but he was not prepared for it at that age. He also knew that he could not in fact deal with his father and protect her, so he had he classic childhood trap. He had to do something but was prevented from doing it. This set up a life long anxiety. The only time he got away from it was when he had a smoke. It started with being with his friends as a teenager, and carried on. The reason he gave up in Scotland was because he was totally on his own and no one was relying on him for anything. So he had no anxiety, and no need for time out, so no need to smoke.

Knowing this I knew how to tackle his smoking - remove the source of the anxiety.

I did that and he is now a non-smoker for life.

I felt that this case has given me an important insight into the motivation of a lot of smokers.

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hard case smoker

The hard case smoker

Last weekend I had the kind of client we all dread. The hard case smoker: Someone who didn't believe that he could give up, ever. He had tried everything. He was only coming to hypnosis because it was the last thing on the list of all the things he had tried that didn’t work. Now he wanted to be able to  show that he done everything possible and nobody could get him to stop smoking.

He started smoking at 15. As a teenager, he was rebellious and resentful at home. He didn’t get on with his dad. He reckoned that as the youngest child his parents had expended all their energies on the older kids and he was of no interest to them. Smoking started when he joined the rugby team. He loved being part of the team, of feeling he belonged and was part of a group. He left home and joined the army. The Army made him feel included, somebody, a tough guy, always loved the camaraderie, the inclusiveness.

He later returned home and from the moment his father picked him up from the airport they began to reconcile. As time went on they became closer, and then his father got throat cancer and died suddenly. He was devastated by this. It was in 1982 but he still feels it keenly.

He is scared of dying and convinced that he cannot stop smoking and that the smoking will kill him, but he is powerless to stop.

Finding a metaphor for the hard case smoker

 I ask my clients a question to establish their feelings about smoking. I say what comes to mind when I say ‘You will never have another cigarette as long as you live’?  When I asked him what he felt he said "dubious".

I asked what smoking looked like and he said a group: him and all the group smoking. Then I decided to develop this and got him to describe the feeling he got with the group. He said the feeling was of being at peace, happy, not wanting it to end. I asked what colour that feeling was and he said red, and square. I asked if he was inside that square. He said, Yes, with all the group. Then I asked if he could drop his cigarettes and get everyone else do that too. He said he could. What has changed? He said nothing.

So I developed that in metaphor. I got him to imagine that they all dropped all the tobacco and lighters and stuff and there was everything on the floor, ash, ashtrays, cigs etc. I asked if he could sweep it up and throw it out of the red square. He said no. So I used incrementalism and got him to put one shovel-full out and if that was OK. He said that would be OK. And then another shovel, and then more shovels, and then all the group were helping and cheering on and he was a leader and the most popular guy in the red square. He eventually cleared out all the smoking stuff and still had all his friends with him in the red square room.

Anchoring the hard case smoker

What was particularly interested about this process is that he had gone into trance with no induction. I notice that when I get a client to focus on a feeling, and follow that feeling they normally go into trance. As long as I do nothing to break the spell, they will stay in trace and not even notice. In NLP this is called revivification. NLP asks the client to think about a memory and get into the memory so as to anchor the feeling. Then when you fire the anchor the client goes into the feeling, in effect goes into trance. This method just starts with the feeling. 

To finish the session I  got this client to go on a journey where he met his dad. His father released him from the smoking and told him that he could live a long and healthy life. I finished off with my standard stop smoking direct suggestions.

It remains to be seen if this client has in fact stopped for ever, but at the end of the session he said ‘It is weird, but I feel different. When I left that square room it had changed color!’


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cycle of addiction

Cycle of addiction 

Cycle of addiction

The cycle of addiction explains why people cannot stop smoking. But it does not explain why smokers who abstained for many years suddenly start again. I had a client today who has got me re-thinking  everything I know about smoking. 

This client smokes 25 to 30 a day now but was able to give up for a year. He started again about twelve months ago after a breakup with his long term girlfriend. He came to see me because a few weeks ago he broke up with the latest girlfriend as well and had started smoking really heavily.

I suppose the simple answer is to learn to keep his relationships going. That is not likely to happen, but it got me thinking about why this would start him smoking again. It is well known that stressful events trigger smoking in current smokers, and often make ex-smokers start again.

Cycle of learned behavior

The basic psychology of learned behaviour is CUE-RESPONSE-REWARD. The person gets stressed, lights up, and then feels better. That is the cycle. The addiction comes when the cycle changes to CUE-ANTICIPATION OF REWARD-RESPONSE. The smoker gets a stress cue, immediately thinks of the reward, wants the reward, and then lights up to get the reward. If the smoker does not get the reward, that is, if the smoker does not immediately light up, then the lack of expected reward turns into a craving aimed at making the person do the response. If the smoker does not get the response the result is either anger or depression.

Most smoking therapies focus on the CUE: teaching the client how to ignore the cue. Some focus on the RESPONSE: change how the smoker behaves, suggesting other things to do instead. Some focus on the REWARD: changing the effect of smoking into a bad taste instead of the reward.

But the smoking problem is really in two parts: stopping smoking, and not starting it again. The time between these two points can vary from five minutes to five years.

Is stopping smoking actually a two step process?

But this analysis got me thinking. If the smoking is the response to cue, then you have to look at the cues. The cues are well known: time of day, finishing a task, having a break, getting away from a stressful situation, eating, drinking, after sex, and so on. These are the cues for the current smoker. They are not the cues for the past smoker. The ex-smoker goes through all of these without smoking. So what is different that makes an ex-smoker into a start-again-smoker?

My clients tell me that it is almost always some sort of stressful life event. Every smoker gives up before having the next one. Most smokers don't want a next one, so they are in effect forced into it in order to deal with their stress (which may be purely internal). The required level of stress for some people is trivial, and for others it is high. For successful ex-smokers the required level is very high, so high that they don't start again ever. For others there is some level of stress they cannot deal with, some level that will trigger the smoking behaviour again.

If that is the case then would it not be better to teach the client how to deal with life event stress as part of the therapy?

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smoking crutch

Smoking Crutch

My client yesterday reminded me that over the years I have come to recognize various categories of smokers. This man I would classify as using smoking as a crutch. I wonder if other therapists would agree?

This smoker was very defensive about his smoking. On a scale of one to ten he only managed a seven on wanting to give up. One a scale of one to ten about how much he believed he could give up he said ' a two and a nine'. He was clearly conflicted about wanting to stop.

Smoking to avoid thinking

I asked how he felt on a plane when he couldn't smoke for three hours. He said he won't go on a plane because he would have to be hours without a cigarette, and couldn't accept that. It was an issue with his wife: she wanted to go abroad on holiday and he had never agreed. He told me that he used to wake up in the middle of the night, just so that he could have a smoke.

Every night, he makes sixty roll ups for the next day. That way he will have one ready instantly all day. He cannot imagine voluntarily being without tobacco in the house. If he had no tobacco, even if he had some smokes to hand, he would have to go and get some. Even it meant an hour's drive or more. He says that he smokes when he has nothing to do, or when he isn't sure what to do next.

I spent a long time trying to find out what he was getting from smoking. But he wouldn't or couldn't go into his reasons. He was very hard to get into, although a very pleasant man. He would rather talk about his opinions or experiences than delve into his own emotions. His father  had been very distant. I asked him if he ever got a hug as a child and he couldn't answer.

Smoking Crutch

He appears to be the type who smokes for something to do. I think that he needs to always feel that he has something to do to stop his mind coming up with some awful feeling. I think he has a deep childhood issue with having to do things in order to get love. But I could be wrong.

I think that smoking is something he does because it guarantees him that whenever that feeling of doubt comes up, his feeling of self worth, he knows he can avoid facing it, because his cigarettes are there to give him an instant distraction.

Maybe I am reading too much into it, but I have spent several hours thinking about this man and his behavior. I am getting more and more convinced that smoking is not simply an addiction. For this man it has been a psychological crutch for him all his life.

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smoking after pregnancy

Starting smoking after pregnancy

I have spent a lot of time talking to people who want to stop smoking. Nothing unusual about that, but I have a deep curiosity about why people keep doing things that they know are bad for them. I really got into psychology because I could not understand my own behaviour. I then widened my interest into examining why other people behave the way they do.

I have read all about addiction, compulsion, attention deficit, and all the other explanations for why people persist in self-destructive behaviour when they clearly do not have to.

Excuses for starting smoking 

So when I meet a smoker, I am always interested in their view of why they smoke. I'm even more interested when I find someone who has succeeded in stopping smoking, and then starts again. I have never come up with a satisfactory answer as to why someone who has stop smoking for a year or two years would then decide to take it up again. They know they don't like it, it was usually really unpleasant to stop, and the reasons they give for starting again are way too trivial to be any kind of rational explanation. I have had people tell me that they started smoking again because "I just wanted to see if I had really stopped". Another person told me, "I just wanted to see what they tasted like", despite having smoked for 20 years and being in absolutely no doubt as to what they tasted like.

Starting smoking after pregnancy

Today I spoke with a young woman who said that she is unable to stop smoking. I asked her if she had ever stop smoking. She replied "yes, when I was pregnant. I stopped smoking for nine months." I said to her "and then you just started smoking again?" "Yes. I wanted to."

I said to her "so why did you start smoking again?". She said, "Because the baby made me stop smoking. I didn't want to stop. I was forced to stop smoking because of the baby. So when I had the baby I went back to smoking again."

I have heard this several times from women who successfully stopped smoking during their pregnancy, but started smoking fairly soon after their baby was born. This behaviour totally disproves theories that smoking is an addiction. These women had given up for eight and nine months so there was nothing there to be addicted to. All the nicotine had left the body long ago. The key to smoking in these cases seems to be all about the individual's view of who they are. It seems that there was a residual resentment towards the baby, that they had been forced to do something they didn't want to do, and were exercising their rights not to have other people tell them what to do.

Identifying the causes of starting smoking after pregnancy

It seems to me that in these cases smoking is tied up with their identity, with ideas of personal choice, refusing to do what other people tell them to do. They are quite happy to give up smoking while they are pregnant. They find it fairly easy to do. It is just something that they have to do at that stage in their life. But as soon as they exit that stage they want to reassert their own personality.

I am guessing that smoking is tied up with their own self-image of independence, possibly rebellion.

The challenge for stop smoking hypnosis is how to change that feeling into something positive.

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Good news for hypnotists – fewer smokers around

The war against the smoker

All round the world, public health authorities are moving towards stamping out cigarette smoking. In Britain, and many other European countries, smoking and enclosed spaces is totally banned. Some communities have banned smoking in public places outdoors as well. Smokers are increasingly taxed, vilified, and held up as per examples. There has been relentless pressure to stop teenagers starting, advertising has been banned. In Australia, government regulations decree that all cigarette packets have to be printed in a muddy brown colour, covered in horrific pictures of smoking related diseases, and almost indistinguishable from other brands. All of this has had a definite effect.

The anti-smokers are winning

Recent statistics from Britain have shown that the number of smokers in the population has fallen dramatically. The chart below, from the Office of National Statistics, shows a long-term decline in smoking. This is probably irreversible. Social and cultural attitudes have changed. Smoking will probably be extinct by the end of the century.


Chart showing proportion of smokers

On the face of it this might seem like very bad news for hypnotists. However, what the chart shows can be looked at differently. 

Actually, it is the hypnotists who are winning

There is a spectrum of smoking behaviour. Some people find it easy to stop smoking. Other people find it impossible. As more and more smokers stop smoking, the smokers who are left in the population are actually the people who cannot give up without help. Although there are fewer smokers, the smokers who remain are different.

And that is why this is good news for hypnotists. Although there are fewer smokers, these are the ones who most need hypnotherapy to get them off the habit. And as the number goes down, those who are left will be more and more cigarette dependent. Eventually we will be left with only those people who are psychologically dependent.

There will be plenty of business for hypnotists in the years to come.


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After stopping smoking

What to do after stopping smoking?

After stopping smoking

Smokers who want to quit often do not really think through what they are going to do after stopping smoking. Smoking 20 a day at 5 to 8 minutes each takes up nearly two hours. That is a lot of time to fill. If you don't give them something to do after stopping smoking, they will start to think about cigarettes again.

Usually, the smoker needs to find something to substitute for the action of smoking, because the desire for a smoke is often triggered by outside circumstances. The external event can be anything. Smokers reward themselves with a cigarette when they finish something: when they get a coffee: and when they just need to get away from a situation. The substitute needs to be something that is socially acceptable, can be done almost anywhere, and takes about the same time as a smoke.

Design a substitute for after stopping smoking

They need some physical thing that can act as a substitute for a cigarette. Specifically, the smoker needs something that will give them a stimulus in their mouth, something to do with their hands, and something that lets them move physically to some other place. Their behaviour after stopping smoking needs to mimic what they did before stopping smoking.

The easiest thing to do is to get them to brush their teeth. The act of brushing their teeth means they have to put something in their mouth, and they get a tingle from the toothpaste. They also have to hold the toothbrush. This gives them something to do with their hands for a few minutes. They have to go to some place with water. This means that they are taken away from whatever trigger was reminding them to smoke.

For the more determined smoker, you can set them a challenge. Tell them that every occasion they used to smoke, what they now do is go outside and run around the block. This takes about the same length of time. This will really take their mind off it, and will remind them of why they want to stop.

You can think up other substitute activities to fit each individual smoker.

These simple techniques will help smokers get over the unfamiliarity of the first few days. And leave them fit or with lovely fresh breath as well!

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Smokers getting marginalised

Are smokers getting marginalised into extinction?

Plain packaging works

In Australia, there is evidence of smokers getting marginalised into extinction. Australia was the first country in the world to introduce plain packaging. Plain packaging is anything but plain. The front and back of all cigarette packs have sickening photos of tobacco related illnesses. All logos and corporate colour schemes are removed and replaced by a drab brown background. The only indication of the brand is a tiny panel on the front.  Every brand name is laid out in exactly the same size and  typeface. There is almost no way of telling one brand from another.

The result of this is that the percentage of people smoking is plummeting in Australia. The government has pledged to keep increasing the cost of cigarettes each year until they are unaffordable. All of this would be expected to lead to what is being seen, a fairly rapid reduction in people smoking.

Smokers getting marginalised

But the government campaign has had an odd side effect. It is not just targeting smokers. It is also having an effect on non-smokers. Over many years laws and regulations have restricted where smokers can smoke. It started with banning smoking in restaurants. Then smoking was banned in pubs.  Later this was extended to every public indoor area. Smoking was banned in jail. Employers started banning smoking in the workplace. So smokers started congregating outside.

This led to the creation of "smoking hot spots" where smokers congregated. To break up this "public nuisance" many states have extended the bans even further. Smoking is banned within 10 m of any playground and on railway platforms, taxi ranks, and bus stops.

The result is that smokers are now being herded into less and less attractive places. The only place they can smoke are places no one else wants to be. The result is a change in public perception. Smokers are getting associated with the places where they smoke. Dirty unpleasant places equals dirty unpleasant people.

So there is increasing social pressure from non-smokers to clear out these smoking places. In the long run this may be just as effective as putting up the price.

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