WEDNESDAY, July 11, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- Could losing their sense of identity be one reason why so many smokers find it hard to kick the habit?
That's the conclusion of new research out of Britain.
"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," said lead researcher Caitlin Notley, from the University of East Anglia in England.
"That can be hard. Particularly when it's something that has been 'part of them' for most of their adult life," Notley suggested.
"Although many people do manage to quit, relapse is very common," she added in a university news release.
"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," Notley said. "We wanted to understand other social factors that might also be important."
In the study, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with people who had quit and relapsed. About 40 participants described their history of smoking and previous quit attempts, and discussed any smoking relapses. The researchers then focused on the 23 people who provided the most detailed information.
"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," Notley explained. "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."
Notley added that people often go back to smoking because "they feel it helps them cope with stressful events. Many saw slipping back into smoking as inevitable. 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."
The findings were published online July 2 in the Journal of Substance Use.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a guide for quitting smoking.