Quitting Smoking Hijacked by the Nucleus Accumbens

Quitting Smoking boys running on beach

The WHAT?

Let's take something easier — the dorsal striatum, or locus coeruleus.

Still gobbledygook?

Not to medical specialists.

If you think quitting smoking is difficult, think of it as a chemical reaction to certain stimuli, that's all. The nucleus accumbens is the name given to part of your brain's pleasure centre where dopamine is produced. Dopamine creates that feel-good mood — simple as that.

Here's a story of a no-good nicotine dragon...

He's hiding in the tobacco. Your cigarette is lit. Fire!

Nicotine dragon comes alive and hitches on to the tiny particles of tar in the inhaled smoke. Down and around he goes, sucked into your airways, then effortlessly slithers into your bloodstream and zooms to your brain about 7 seconds later.

Nicotine dragon gets off at the nucleus accumbens and hails a passing receptor cell and hops aboard, flicks a switch to let out happy little neurotransmitters, particularly dopamines. These molecules rush around for about 30 minutes or so, having a bit of a party and making you feel warm and fuzzy, then they get bored and go back to sleep, leaving you with the bill.

So then you buy another round because you liked that party...

Some of your other party friends had a ho hum sort of time, and some an even better time. Their nucleus accumbens didn't have any or many receptor cells to attract any nicotine dragons, or on the other hand, they sent their dragons to latch on to receptors in their dorsal striatum, which made them feel good in other ways.

Your hippocampus will also have been active. That's your memory center, and it works hard to remind you of all the agreeable memories associated with smoking.

And when quitting smoking, your locus coeruleus, an alarm centre of the brain, notices a shortage of its favorite drug and sets off, well, an alarm, chemically, to go and get a fix quick smart.

Remember the dorsal striatum? It's part of the brain region associated with motivation. This means it produces neurotransmitters such as dopamine in response to the emotional triggers of smoking, rather than the nicotine trigger. So your other party buddies — and maybe you too — tried to get their kicks by subconscious associations with smoking and... maybe being with friends, having a break, soothing angry feelings, loneliness, boredom... or even just having a coffee. These ingrained habits are what make you a smoker in the psychological sense.

This party life is weary after a while. Up and down, high and low, lots of time, energy and money to go where... up and down again — a prisoner.

What to do? You can't think of anything worse than a day without smoking. Apart from two days without smoking. You'll just have to make you own party arrangements when quitting smoking, that's all.

Start off with those little dopamines. Make them yourself by exercising. It can sometimes take a few days of getting stuck into exercise before the brain clicks in and revs up those little critters, and from then on it's high, high all the way. You've heard of "runners high," and now you can have it too, with any exercise from cycling to walking.

Meditation or some deep reflective time is another proven way to wake up those brain pleasure centers. There again it can take a bit of practice to go really deeply "into yourself", but it's such a fantastic feeling — thanks to dopamine and those other neurotransmitters your brain produces.

Laughing, love, friendship, peace, chocolate, fun, being creative, excitement, giving and sharing will all give your nucleus accumbens or dorsal striatum a buzz. You've just forgotten or neglected how good life can make you feel.

Fill up your previous smoking time with other interests, walk by the sea, go to a new night class. Occupy your hands with healthy snacks or a craft, stress toy, puzzles and so on. Successfully quitting smoking permanently, simply means putting new habits and pleasurable memories into your brain.

Concentrate and keep shifting your focus on the new pleasures of quitting smoking and how good it feels and how much better your future is, rather than on any temporary feelings your old smoking habit gave you.

After a few weeks your new pleasurable feelings will now be programmed into your sub-conscious and you will safely think and act as a non-smoker.

You're not going to let a few odd sounding brain parts get the better of you are you?

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