Real-time Data Could Lead to Better Quit-Smoking Treatments

Person putting their hands on their face

New research published in the journal Psychological Assessment may help researchers develop interventions to ease withdrawal in the moments smokers are experiencing them.

People trying to quit smoking may feel they are on an emotional rollercoaster as they go through withdrawal, encounter stressful events, and deal with cravings to smoke. While peaks of agitation on that coaster are associated with strong temptations to smoke, dips into distress are associated with difficulty resisting temptation and actual smoking.

That’s according to data inputted in “real time” into digital diaries by 113 participants in a research study conducted by UW-CTRI Associate Director of Research Danielle McCarthy and students, and it jibes with other recent research. “If we want to understand which parts of the roller coaster ride of quitting are riskiest in terms of lapsing, then we need to learn to distinguish emotional and mental states based on their relations with smoking,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy and colleagues at Rutgers, Yale, and the University of New Mexico tested two models of tracking smoking withdrawal, and found it more helpful to split them into 2 groups than to keep all the symptoms together:

  1. Group One included impatience, anxiousness, and restlessness (high points on the roller coaster).
  2. Group Two included fatigue, sadness, being upset and distressed (low points on the roller coaster).

The hope is that, by getting this data in the moments smokers experience them, researchers can develop better treatments, such as “just-in-time interventions.” An example could be sending a message to a patient to “hang in there” or employing a medication (such as the nicotine lozenge) during a distressed moment as a way to help the patient persevere. Some researchers have even used apps to geo-locate smokers during a quit attempt so that, if they get near a tobacco store or a place where they’ve been known to smoke, an intervention is triggered.

McCarthy said it’s possible that one day researchers could use smart phones and other devices to sense biomarkers (such as elevated heart rate) and dispense interventions before the smoker even realizes it’s needed. This would not only make the intervention more timely, she said, but also potentially remove the burden of taking action from the patient.

McCarthy conducted the research while she was still working at Rutgers.