A perspective on nicotine addiction from a hypnotherapist for quitting smoking – the role of the family

Exploring the ways that family psychodynamics can play a role in stubborn nicotine addiction.

A perspective on nicotine addiction from a hypnotherapist for quitting smoking – the role of the family

Exploring the ways that family psychodynamics can play a role in stubborn nicotine addiction.

As a hypnotherapist for quitting smoking, what have you learned about the reasons some people start smoking and then can’t stop?


Nicotine is a drug. Smokers are addicts. That means the nervous system has become so accustomed to the regular intake of nicotine that withdrawal is unpleasant. And so the addict compulsively seeks out their drug in order to avert this.

However, this is not the complete picture: why do some people relapse long after the withdrawal period has ended? Why do some people smoke for a short time in their teens and then easily grow out of it, while others remain stuck in a seemingly unbreakable cycle?

Unfortunately, the only thing everyone can agree on is that ‘some brains are just wired that way’. I doubt we’ll be able to say more than that with confidence until the study of genetics and epigenetics becomes much more advanced. But there are many theories about what lies behind this wiring in humans, and these theories offer us ways to treat the problem.

Today, the general opinion held by practitioners in recovery communities is that addiction is one possible result of psychological trauma – and that trauma is assumed usually to have occurred early in life – in genetically pre-disposed individuals. The unresolved trauma creates feelings that are hard to manage, leaving the person particularly vulnerable to life’s sharp edges. The theory is that they then meaningfully, but temporarily, find relief with altered states. So, according to this theory, addiction is the consequence of drug use as a way of coping. In these circles, the process of recovery from a serious drug or alcohol addiction involves complete abstinence as well as individual and/or group therapy. I’m a hypnotherapist for quitting smoking – not an addiction therapist – but I broadly subscribe to this theory and have seen it to varying degrees during my own practice.


So why is it possible to use a hypnotherapist for quitting smoking while alcohol and other addictions need much heavier interventions?


Despite its similarity to other addictions, nicotine addiction has some unique markers. The most obvious difference is that it’s much less dramatic: I have yet to meet a cigarette smoker whose addiction has resulted in crime, long disappearances and homelessness. It is not chaotic. And although smokers sometimes feel non-smokers are judge them, It is still basically socially acceptable.

However, in some ways this makes it particularly insidious and nasty. The damage initially caused by smoking is invisible, or very subtle. Nicotine nests itself comfortably in the lives of smokers and cleverly hides in their psychological traumas or other soft spots to ensure they keep on using it in the long term. Hypnosis can be an excellent way of finding these spots and reversing the psychological romance with smoking, and once the smoker has realized the truth, reversal can be quite easy. It’s also worth noting that many practitioners believe hypnosis is a tool that does hold potential for the treatment of other addictions.


I understand trauma but what do you mean by ‘soft spots’?


It has long been recognized that our personalities, behaviour, relationships with other people and our inner world too are all heavily informed by our environment. For the purposes of this article, I’ve split ‘environment’ into 2 sections: our culture/society, and our families. The first is significant but the latter is crucial.

Our experiences in early life, particularly with our caregivers and immediate family, form the foundation of our worldview and identity. When I became a hypnotherapist for quitting smoking, I had no idea that my clients would describe so many varied, complex and interesting family psychodynamics. It was often easy to see the ways that their smoking had entangled with these, and therefore their sense of who they are in the world. The point of entanglement is what I call a ‘soft spot’. Below are two example to illustrate what I mean.


Smoking and the family


A child grows up in a home with a mother who struggles to cope. Her husband works long hours and isn’t hugely present in day-to-day family life. She smokes cigarettes, as she feels they help her to calm down when she is overwhelmed. And she finds she is overwhelmed often. This child watches his mother smoke and when he asks her why, she says it makes her feel better when she’s fed up, angry or tired.

He sees her smoking after she’s just received bad news, after arguments with the child’s father and after she’s had to tell off the child’s brother. The child doesn’t think about this much. But he does absorb the fact that he can please his mother by bringing her cigarettes. He learns to anticipate when she’ll need them: when he hears his mother’s voice reach a certain volume, he knows what he must do. She thanks him every time, and sometimes, for a few minutes, she really notices him. She tells the child he is a good boy, asks him questions and shows an interest. The child enjoys these moments. As he gets older, their relationship adapts for adolescence and the child and his mother are bonded by this secret, strange ritual. The child has no interest in smoking himself – he doesn’t care about cigarettes. Only that he can make his mum happy by supplying them.

Years later, the child is married and is expecting a child of his own, although money is a little tighter than he’d like and he isn’t quite where he hoped to be in his career by now. He’ll have to put in some extra time at work, even though the birth of his first child is imminent. One morning, after staying late in the office the night before and then returning home to complete a long list of household jobs, he finds himself walking through the smoking area with a colleague. He is tired and bleary, but something in him is drawn to the cigarettes his colleagues are enjoying. He asks for one. His colleagues are surprised. But they oblige.

After that cigarette, discovers he feels different. A little. Not better, not worse. Just strange. The next day he has another cigarette. And then another. Soon, at home, he finds himself going outside after dinner, bringing his phone with him to watch funny Tiktok videos while he smokes for a little while before he joins his heavily pregnant wife inside and starts on the evening chores.

Fast forward several years: there are two children and a family dog. There is more money coming in: all those hours paid off and he got the promotion. But somehow, after everything’s been paid, there never seems to be enough. He now has a steady, smoking habit too – but no more than ten a day. It helps Daddy calm down, his three-year-old daughter informs guests who come to their home. He finds this adorable but also very sad. He knows he should stop and that smoking isn’t good for him, but he likes how it makes him feel. Likes that it gives him two minutes of peace every now and then.

One day, the financial pundits predict that the Bank of England will announce a huge interest rate hike. Household budgets will be very badly hit. The man shakes his head and starts tapping his feet. He wants a cigarette, even though it’s only eight o’clock in the morning.

If we ask this man to stop smoking, we are asking him to do much more than simply stop inhaling the fumes from a carcinogenic plant stick: we are asking him to realize that his mother couldn’t cope and didn’t have time for him when he was a child, and the only way he was able to get her attention was by bringing her portions of a drug she was addicted to. This man’s smoking, therefore, is a nod to his childhood belief that he was able to help and even save his mother. He thought that all she needed was nicotine in order to be a better mother. His smoking is a simple case of an unchallenged belief about smoking: that cigarettes are what grown-ups need in order to cope.

Here is another example. A child is born in to a house with a dull, flat atmosphere. The child’s parents and sibling lack a natural humorous spark or sense of adventure. It isn’t that the activities this family do are inherently or uniquely dull, but they somehow become dull when this family do them. Everything this family does is sensible and contained: financial choices; meals; the way they participate in social conventions. But the child is different: she is not dull or flat and does not much care about being sensible.

This child is what’s known as a ‘black sheep’: she finds her family oppressive and rebels against them. She is drawn to do things or say things that disrupt and puncture the sensible-ness of her family’s way of behaving. She is often loud, rude and daring, which means she gets in to trouble trouble at school. Her behaviour embarrasses but also baffles her parents – they regularly discuss why they think she is like this and what they should do about it. They tut a lot and use seem to repeat ‘I just don’t understand. I just don’t understand’. They aren’t really capable of deeper inquiry.

Because the child’s personality is so at odds with the environment she has to live in, she doesn’t feel happy much of the time. She knows she isn’t like her parents, but because her family’s worldviews have influenced her for the whole of her life, she isn’t able to truly see these beliefs and ways of behaving objectively, as they are mostly unconscious.

Enter nicotine when she is 15 years old. From the first cigarette she smokes with her friends after school one day, she realizes she quite likes it. It does something vaguely pleasant to her brain, but more importantly, it feels edgy, grown up. It is a kind of love at first sight, and cigarettes become a reliable friend she must always have near her, and always be seen with. She quickly becomes a heavy smoker. It gives her a ritual that she can do that allows her to express all her feelings about her family’s values and sensibilities. It tells her family, and the world, that she doesn’t care about being sensible – she prefers to be dangerous. It allows her to scratch the itch that is always at the back of her mind that tells her she doesn’t fit in.

She remains a heavy smoker for years. She finds her mood and sense of purpose improve as she nears the end of adolescence. Now, she even finds that she now has time and more space to explore other things and grows in to herself a bit more: she finds out what she is really good at and starts to do it professionally. She becomes genuinely original and creative. But stays a smoker.

Asking this young woman to stop smoking isn’t as simple as her being able to get through the withdrawal: cigarettes mean far more to her than a simple, low-level physical addiction. For her, smoking cigarettes was the most effective way she ever had at fulfilling her natural role in the her family’s dynamic: it allowed her to express and defend her identity in her family environment and also to feel less depressed and alone. In was a support and friend when no one else was, and a big part of her identity. Letting go of this would require her to really piece together an understanding that although she was physically looked after, she was also fundamentally let down by her family in other ways.


If I see a hypnotherapist for quitting smoking, will I find my own psychological ‘soft spots’?


Be prepared! If you find you have a stubborn smoking addiction, I gently suggest there could well be a good, highly personal reason you may be unaware of. As a hypnotherapist for quitting smoking, I aim to gently point out to my clients anything they have touched on which I feel might be worth examining – and, as they begin to integrate it, support them through this. You can find out more about me, my background and how I do this and have a look at what some of my clients have said about me. If you feel ready to do this kind of process, then please book a Discovery call so we can work out whether we would be a good fit to work together!


Thanks for reading! This article deals with smoking in the context of family psychodynamics. There will soon be another article that deals with the smoking culture of society. If you think you might recognize an individual from this article, then no you don’t! 🙂


Best wishes,


Leo Thomas


Both Feet on the Ground

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