I've always been a roller coaster smoker.
Senior year of high school, I’d sneak one or two from my mom’s pocketbook most mornings. During college, I’d casually light up in the corner of a dark club—cigarette in one hand, Vodka 7 in the other.
Throughout my twenties, I'd go through weeks, even months of not taking a drag (it doesn’t really go with training for the NYC marathon), succumbing only to drunken-induced puffing (more than two glasses of wine and my self control flew out the window).
But with the stereotypical European photographer mega-smoker boyfriend, cigs were always within arm’s reach, right through to my thirtieth birthday. Still, I never thought of myself as a smoker. I mean, I never had my own pack and rarely lit up sober.
Then one night almost two years ago, the aforementioned ex, came home after work, ate my dinner and handed me a single-spaced hand written break up letter. The next morning, he walked out the door, despite my pleading for him to stay.
My heart shattered into a million pieces. The pain was so unbearable that I literally crumbled onto the kitchen floor. My stress level shot through the roof during the dark days and weeks and months that followed. And so did my smoking. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. Most days I felt like I could barely breathe.
The only thing that I could do was smoke. Smoking as I packed up every box from that teeny tiny apartment we called home. Smoking after I left my new apartment every morning to get a coffee. When I bought a salad for lunch. Left a meeting. Got out of the subway. Finished at the gym. Drinks. Dinner. And often for no reason at all. Cig. Cig. Cig. Cig.
Long after I picked my heart and myself off the floor, I kept picking up cigarettes. Suddenly it was a year and a half later and even though I was consciously healing from a toxic relationship—one that I later discovered was tainted with endless cheating and lies and thankfully ended before a ring or children were involved—I continued to fill my body with toxic fumes. I woke up every day and vowed not to have one. Every time I put out a cigarette, I swore it was my last.
It was a never-ending cycle of failure and guilt.
The woman I knew followed through on whatever she set her mind to. I started running for the first time in my life about five years ago and after six months of light half hour jogs, I decided I’d run 26.2. And I did. Twice. Smoking simply wasn’t in sync with my personality or even more so, the non-smoking, uber-healthy image that everyone who knew me had of me. My family had no clue I smoked (or so I think). I curbed my cravings in front of friends that would say “Ewww” with a judgmental glance every time I’d pull a pack from my bag. Even my new boyfriend was kept completely in the dark.
But more importantly, smoking just didn’t fit into the picture I had of myself or who I wanted to be.
I became desperate to reprogram my thoughts. I tried telling myself that I was worthy of being healthy and happy in a life full of love and free of cigarettes. But deep down, I didn’t believe it. And so every day I lit up.
Finally, I decided to get hypnotized. Of course, I had my doubts. First of all, I didn’t even know what getting hypnotized meant. Would I be in a trance? Sleeping? I also wasn’t sure that it would work. What if I wasn’t hypnotizable? Any prior attempt at meditation only left me obsessing over how much laundry I had to do or what was in every crevice of my junk drawer. But what did I have to lose? I was already filling my lungs with carcinogens and continuing to lead a life and a lie that I wasn’t proud of.
On my way to see Ana Tucker, a board certified hypnotherapist in New York City’s flatiron district, I smoked four cigarettes. Yes, four. It was 9 a.m. I even lit up when I stood in front of the building, making myself five minutes late to my appointment. I realize now that even though I was desperate to stop, I was also terrified to.
In her cozy office, I broke out in a sweat and feebly attempted to control my wavering voice, as I recapped my emotional tale of heartbreak and the reasons I thought I couldn’t end my disgusting, robotic-like behavior: If I stopped smoking I might fall into a million pieces again.
Tucker took notes and interjected reassuring ‘Uh-huh’s and head nods in between my sentences. When I was done, I nestled into a large recliner. Her soothing sing-songy voice coupled with the leather arms of the chair wrapped around me like a long, warm hug. For the next hour, with my eyes glued shut, I followed her verbal cues, imagining what I would look and feel like as a non-smoker five years down the road compared to continuing to smoke. I envisioned a wrinkly, tired, depressed version of myself versus a Gisele-like counterpart—glowing and energetic with a ridiculously toned body in a floaty sundress. Tucker asked me to think of words and emotions that I associated with smoking (Tar! Cancer! Toxic! Fatigue!). My mind hung onto every ebb and flow of her repetitious mantra: “You don’t even want it, you don’t even think about it, it’s not even an option.
Unlike what most people believe hypnosis entails, I was completely awake—the entire time. I knew that I was in a comfy chair in an office on 5th Avenue. I knew that I was listening to a somewhat Zenner-than-thou guided meditation that quickly devoured an hour of my day. But I loved every word. I wanted to absorb more and more of her voice and this new, negative way of thinking of smoking. I felt relieved to ask for help. To be helped. I was completely relaxed—in that sweet spot right before you start to dose off. “When you’re hypnotized, you’re in an extremely relaxed yet hyper focused state so you have access to a part of the mind and information that you don’t normally,” says Tucker. “The subconscious is extremely powerful and controls our beliefs about ourselves and the world—it is the part of the mind that drives our behavior.”
Then came the imagery that really hit home: picturing the smoker part of me outside of myself like a separate entity. I silently spoke to this mini-me version of myself and told her that while I knew she was trying to help me cope and protect me by giving me something to concentrate on other than my broken heart, I no longer needed her because I was OK now. With my eyes still squeezed tight, tears flowed down my cheeks. Tears that finally let go of my heartache. And cigarettes.
“It’s very common for people to be frustrated with overeating, smoking or dating someone they know they shouldn’t be because there’s a part of them that thinks they’re doing the right thing and has some positive reason for doing it,” explains Tucker. “In a state of hypnosis, when I speak directly with that part of the subconscious, I can uncover that reason, and in doing so, I’m able to resolve a better plan or coping [strategy].”
Just like with many a New Year’s resolution, smoking is often at the top of the hypnosis wish list. And for good reason: In a study from the University of California at San Francisco, smokers who had two 60-minute hypnosis sessions and three phone follow-ups were more likely to abstain from cigarettes a year later versus those who had the same number of standard behavioral counseling sessions and follow-ups. And there are a slew of other bad habits that can benefit from targeting the subconscious mind—nail biting and hair pulling to fear of flying, overeating and insomnia. Even reversing timid behavior in the bedroom or a shop-til-you-drop obsession. And while it’s easy to get all gung-ho day one of the New Year, setting reasonable, attainable goals and planning for the barriers you might encounter will make you more likely to cross the finish line.
“I find that when I can help someone identify the reason for doing something that’s not good for him or her, then change comes so much more easily,” says Tucker. “When the subconscious aligns with a conscious intention and the two areas communicate, a specific behavior pattern just doesn’t fit anymore.”
While ending not-so-good behavior is often first on the list to start anew, experts agree that getting hypnotized to instigate a good habit or thought process could be a fresh alternative. “Every now and then I meet with someone who wants to move forward in their life and be in the world in a different way—experience something new and be more proactive—they’ll say that they want to be in a relationship or be truly happy,” says Tucker.
At The Hypnosis Network, a company that utilizes renowned hypnotists worldwide to create prerecorded sessions that can be downloaded and listened to in the comfort of your own home, a set of sessions meant to enhance productivity and lessen procrastination is one of the site’s top sellers.
And although once considered magic show hoopla, hypnosis is gaining cred in the medical arena. A recent study conducted at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City showed that breast cancer patients who received a 15-minute hypnosis session by a psychologist prior to surgery needed less anesthesia and reported feeling less pain, fatigue and nausea post-surgery than the control group who had a general counseling session (in addition to incurring lower operating room expenses and surgical time).
“I’ve had surgeons tell me they can tell when a patient has had a hypnosis session pre-surgery,” says Roberta Temes, Ph.D, a psychotherapist and certified hypnotherapist in New Jersey and author of "The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hypnosis." “These patients’ vital signs stay steady, there’s often little or no need for pain meds, plus patients are even happy and smiling.” Temes explains that she’ll tell a pre-op patient positive thoughts before they head in: that they’re excited to go through with the procedure and will feel better; that they’re in good hands and will heal quickly.
And research suggests that the mind is sending the message to the body: In a pilot study, Carol Ginandes, Ph.D. of Harvard Medical School, found that participants with a specific ankle fracture who received a multi-session hypnotic intervention protocol designed to accelerate healing, in addition to customary orthopedic care, showed significantly greater fracture healing on x-rays six weeks after the injury than those who received only standard care.
Want to wake up every day excited to hit the gym? Or make broccoli your first choice over chocolate? Whatever the resolution, never underestimate the power of your own mind to make it a reality: “Hypnosis is the original mind body medicine,” says Dr. Temes.
In my case, it helped me overcome a seemingly insurmountable challenge. I've been smoke-free for seven months and am living the happy, healthy life I deserve.
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