Many ex-smokers begin smoking again because they want to recapture a sense of lost social identity, according to new British research published in the Journal of Substance Use. In fact, according to the findings, many smokers experience quitting as a “loss.”

“Although many people do manage to quit, relapse is very common,” says lead researcher Dr. Caitlin Notley from the University of East Anglia.

“Of course we know that smoking is physically addictive, and there has been research about the psychological side of it — but this assumes that people are unable to resist physical urges, or are vulnerable to social cues. We wanted to understand other social factors that might also be important.”

The researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 43 people who had quit and relapsed. The participants described their history of smoking and previous quit attempts, their current quit attempt, and discussed any smoking relapses.

The researchers then cut down the sample to 23 participants who provided the most detailed information about relapsing to smoking.

“What we have found is that relapse is associated with a whole range of emotional triggers. It is often tied up with people wanting to recapture a lost social identity — their smoker identity. People want to feel part of a social group, and recover a sense of who they are — with smoking having been part of their identity, for most, since their teenage years,” said Notley.

“The social environment and close personal relationships are major influences on people, usually teens, when they start smoking in the first place. People learn, socially, to become a ‘smoker’ — it’s part of a group membership and it becomes an important part of people’s identity.”

“When people attempt to quit smoking, what they are really doing is attempting to bury part of their old identity and reconfigure a new one. That can be hard. Particularly when it’s something that has been ‘part of them’ for most of their adult life.”

Quitting smoking may mean giving up previous social groups, for example, and finding a new identity as a non-smoker. Notley adds that many people return to the habit because they feel it helps them deal with stressful events. In fact, many smokers see relapse as inevitable, she says.

“They also talked about a sense of relief at regaining their identity as a smoker — so there are a lot of emotional reactions related to relapse such as pleasure, but also guilt and shame,” says Notley.

Source: University of East Anglia