Could This Device Help Me Stop Smoking?

illustrated by Anna Jay.
Over the past few years, it has become very apparent that smoking is most definitely not cool.
Smoking of course was never cool. Smoking is, essentially, paying money to a big corporation which doesn't care about you in order to slowly kill yourself. Which is a really ridiculous way to spend your money. Even more ridiculous than renting a flat in London's zones 1 and 2.
Smoking has survived for such a long time because, well, apart from the nicotine addictions, most of us secretly thought it was a bit cool. It was like, "Yes, smoking is very bad for you but, oh, there's a black and white picture of a model with a Marlboro Red hanging out of the side of her mouth and yes she looks cool." What wasn't shown in the picture, though, was that model in 10 years' time with crap skin and lung problems. That's not very cool is it?
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In 2018, however, smoking is less cool than it's ever been. Go ahead and tell a teenager you smoke; chances are they'll be disgusted. Smokers have been banished from near every public space – bars, restaurants and pubs were just the beginning. Some wards of Tokyo have even banned smoking on the streets. New Zealand hopes to be fully smoke-free by 2025.
But what about those of us who are still partial to the odd cigarette here and there (or everywhere)? There's plenty of help out there to quit, of course; from the NHS to Boots, there are nicotine patches and vape sticks, but actually kicking that craving can be really, really tough.
Which is why a machine called the Alpha-Stim looks particularly interesting.
Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation (CES) – which is what the Alpha-Stim does – is not new; it's been around for 30-odd years. However, it's not quite in mainstream usage just yet. Studies are out there showing that CES can be useful in helping people deal with everything from anxiety to depression to insomnia. More recently, it has been suggested that it can help deal with the cravings of an addiction. That's where smoking comes in.
So what is CES? It sounds a little more alarming than it is. Essentially you place electrodes on your head which emit a low electrical current. Yes, this might sound a little shocking but let us assure you that these are very low doses. You'll barely be able to feel them. Over 35 years of testing CES, the only side-effects reported are minor headaches.
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The Alpha-Stim works by modulating the brain's electrochemical signals. Increasing alpha brainwaves, the so-called "relaxing" waves, can help reduce anxiety. With regards to smoking, it is thought that they help take the anxiety regarding a craving away, thus making the craving more manageable.
So could it work for me? Me, who smokes when my willpower is weak and my sense of ritual is particularly strong? I tried the Alpha-Stim over the course of a week – here's how it went.
Day One
By 3.45pm I am all about having a cigarette. I never normally used to smoke during the day but recently, I've found myself sneaking out, mid-afternoon, to break up the time. Not good behaviour at all that, is it?
And so, as instructed, I take out my Alpha-Stim, which looks a little like an old MP3 player. The electrodes click on your earlobes like clip-on earrings and wires reach back to the machine, which has several settings relating to time and strength. I clip on my ear clamps and whack the setting up to 2. I am sitting at my desk while I do this.
Maybe it's because I have a computer screen close to my face or maybe it's because the room is bright but either way, I feel all kinds of dizzy. In fact, I turn the computer screen to 1.5 because I feel as though it's rocking backwards and forwards like a swing in front of my face.
At the end of the 20 minutes, I have this weird heavy feeling (the practitioner said this might happen) in my cheeks, the front of my head. I add on a further two minutes to counteract this. It works.
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At the end of the session I don't want a ciggie, but I do feel a little woozy. I can't tell if I've distracted myself from the craving or whether it's actually gone. Either way, it's seemed to work today.
A little later I leave the office and walk to my evening class. Normally I have a cigarette at this point, and so I do, but end up throwing it away halfway through as I'm not getting any enjoyment from it at all.
I wonder what tomorrow will bring?
Day Two
I'm doing A-OK until about 3pm when my co-worker goes for a cigarette. I'm right in the middle of a feature and could use a break. Shall I go? I decide I'm going to try the Alpha-Stim first. Feeling a little braver than yesterday, I strap my ear pieces on and crank it up to 2. I do feel a bit dizzy but I can still work. By the end, I don't want to smoke any more. Again, whether or not I've distracted myself with dizzy brain in the past 20 minutes or whether the Alpha-Stim has done something to my cravings, I'm not sure. Either way, no cigs here.
Day Three
Going through the day as I have done the past few days, Alpha-Stimming in the afternoon, I reach the end of the work day cigarette-free. I don't want one at all. I've got my writing course this evening however, and we always go for drinks afterwards so I'm unsure how the evening's going to pan out.
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The practitioner advised doing an Alpha-Stim session before going for drinks as the alcohol may mess with how effective it is. Inevitably I forget. Inevitably, I have an alcoholic drink and lose all my morals. I smoke three cigarettes. Sorry Mum.
Day Four
After last night's disastrous events, I decide that today must be different. At 5pm in our office on Fridays we have drinks at our desks and this is usually when me and a few other colleagues go and have a cigarette. Anticipating the habit which I know will kick in, I do an Alpha-Stim session at about 4.30pm. When my colleagues ask if I want to go for a cigarette, I don't feel like one but I feel I should go anyway – it's weird how habit can become ingrained in your psyche. It's like even though I'm not craving one, I still want one, because that's part of my ritual. I don't go. But I do go for drinks later and smoke several. Did I Alpha-Stim again before? No. So that's my bad.
Day Five
It's Saturday. I don't smoke on Saturday day. Ever. Because my day is always different. Which makes another interesting point about habit. If you don't have rituals in a day, a cigarette can't become part of them. However, I realise that I do have a ritual when it comes to drinking alcohol and smoking because, despite doing 20 minutes with the Alpha-Stim, as soon as I have a glass of wine that evening, I want a cigarette. And I have one. And then another. Sorry again.
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Conclusion
In order to see real effects, the Alpha-Stim experiment needs to be carried out over a longer period of time. I was, however, impressed with how it interrupted the cravings I experienced while at work. I literally went from being about to head out for a cigarette to feeling like "Meh, what's the big deal about cigarettes anyway?"
Clearly I have a lot of learned habits when it comes to smoking – like with drinking alcohol – and at this level the Alpha-Stim didn't have much of an impact. Due to the effectiveness of the short-term results though, I'd be more than willing to give it a go to see if over time, it could help me tackle this as well.
The Alpha-Stim AID retails for £549 or is available on a buy-to-rent scheme from £51 a month. For more information please visit www.alpha-stim.co.uk or call 01487 208041.
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