Counseling Today, Features

Pushing through the vape cloud

By Lindsey Phillips November 26, 2019

Four years ago, Hannah Rose, a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Baltimore, started vaping as a way to quit traditional cigarettes, but she ultimately found that it was even more difficult to stop vaping. “I was vaping at work, round-the-clock, in between clients,” Rose recalls.

One day after leaving a yoga class, she instantly reached for her vape. In that moment, she felt conflicted because her nicotine addiction did not line up with her values of being mentally and physically healthy. This values conflict made her want to quit, but the thought of doing so gave her anxiety.

Part of Rose’s anxiety stemmed from the fact that nicotine, which is in most vape juices, can be highly addictive. One pod (about 200 puffs) of the electronic-cigarette brand Juul contains 20 cigarettes’ worth of nicotine. Gail Lalk, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor in private practice at Young Adult Therapy in Morristown, New Jersey, says she has seen teenagers who have gotten addicted after vaping one or two pods.

E-cigarettes often introduce nicotine to teenagers who were not previously smoking traditional cigarettes. This has been the case for the majority of Lalk’s younger clients. Lalk asserts that she hasn’t had a single client younger than 18 who started vaping because they were trying to quit cigarettes.

Recent statistics confirm the popularity of vaping among teenagers. According to the Food and Drug Administration, from 2017 to 2018, e-cigarette use grew by 78% among high school students (from 11.7% of students to 20.8% of students) and increased 48% among middle school students (from 3.3% to 4.9% of students). In December 2018, Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued an advisory about the dangers of e-cigarette use among teenagers and declared it an epidemic in the United States.

But why have e-cigarettes gained popularity so quickly? The big draw is the flavor, says Rose, who has experience working with clients battling addiction. Traditional cigarettes aren’t known for their good taste. The first time someone smokes a traditional cigarette, they usually start coughing and are left with a tobacco or menthol aftertaste.

Compare that experience with vaping: It doesn’t feel harsh when the user inhales, yet the user still gets a buzz of nicotine. And this experience comes in almost any taste imaginable — mango, mint, apple pie, cake, bourbon, coffee and so on. The options are so plentiful that some online vape shops organize the flavors by categories such as cream and custard, candy, sour and beverage. 

However, after a recent outbreak of lung injuries associated with vaping, e-cigarettes have been coming under increased scrutiny. The Trump administration has proposed a policy to ban flavored vaping liquids, and several states such as Michigan, New York and Massachusetts have already enacted similar bans. In October, Juul announced it was immediately suspending sales of its e-cigarette flavors.

Watch your language

Jennifer See, an LPC and a licensed chemical dependency counselor in private practice in San Antonio, advises counselors to be honest with their clients about the attraction of vaping. “These substances make these kids feel good, even if it’s just temporary. So, saying that they don’t is just not a good approach,” notes See, a member of the American Counseling Association.

Instead, counselors should acknowledge that vaping can be pleasurable and ask clients what they like about it, she says. At the same time, clients can be reassured that they have the ability to quit, even though it will be difficult, and that the counselor will be there with them every step of the way, she adds.

When referring to the issue of vaping during intake or in session, counselors need to be specific about the language they use, See says. Smoking is not “an umbrella [term for vaping] because people don’t really associate [vaping] with tobacco or nicotine,” she explains. “It’s almost its own category.”

On her intake form, See used to ask clients if they were using nonprescribed substances such as alcohol, tobacco or nicotine, or whether they smoked. However, she was finding that clients who vaped often responded no to these questions because they didn’t consider it to be the same as smoking. Now, See clearly asks if clients vape or Juul (the most popular brand of e-cigarettes).

This advice extends to the language counselors use on their websites and in how they advertise their clinical services. Rather than listing only general terms such as substance use or smoking, counselors should specifically list vaping if they are trained and feel comfortable working with the issue, See suggests.

Rose doesn’t believe that vaping should be the focus of counseling sessions, at least not initially. “Vaping is not the problem,” she explains. “It’s just a symptom of the problem. So, counselors [first] need to tap into that core-issue work.”

As Rose points out, even 12-step programs view substances as symptoms of a larger issue. “The 12 steps are not about not drinking [or smoking],” she says. “The only step that even mentions alcohol or nicotine is the first step. The other 11 steps are all about introspective work, practicing integrity, and looking at what patterns of behavior are no longer useful.” The success of this approach lies in looking for the underlying issue, not treating the substance as the problem, she says.

Parents often call See in a panic because they have caught their child vaping and want the child to stop. Parents — typically out of concern and fear — may try to punish or shame their children into quitting. See avoids any hint of shaming her young clients for their choices or even making assumptions about their readiness to quit whatever substances they are using “because I think that is a great way to alienate [the client],” she says.

Rather than launching into a discussion about vaping, See instead starts her sessions by getting to know the client. She will ask about school, home life and friends. She may ask, “What do you do in your free time? What activities are you involved in? Did you recently move? Do you have any pets?”

Often, these conversations reveal the role that vaping plays in clients’ lives, See says. For instance, a client may have started vaping because they just moved and wanted to fit in with a new group of friends, or because they are stressed out about applying to college.

See specializes in substance use and abuse and has expertise working with clients and their family members on issues around vaping. She has found that younger kids want to talk about vaping not only in social settings but also in counseling because they don’t consider it illicit and because they feel it is novel or cool to bring up the latest vape tricks and challenges. One popular challenge is for users to “hit a Juul” as many times as they can for 30 seconds. Another involves the “ghost inhale,” in which users inhale the vapor into their mouths, blow it out in the shape of a ball, and then quickly sip it back into their mouths.

Finding the underlying issue

Using motivational interviewing, See eventually asks clients if they want to quit vaping, if they are worried about their health if they continue vaping, and what their goals are for therapy. Part of the purpose of this questioning is to figure out the underlying reason that clients are vaping in the first place, See says. Is it because they are anxious or depressed? Is it simply because they want to appear cool?

To help clients pinpoint their underlying issue, See asks them to keep a journal to track their thoughts and behaviors connected to vaping. Often, as clients track when and where they vape — for example, when they’re alone in their room, when they’re with friends in their car, or when they’re bored — they also discover the real reasons they do it.

Clients keep track of their vaping habits for a few weeks or in between sessions, and then with See’s help, they look for patterns and clues that point to the underlying reason. This exercise also helps clients gain greater awareness of how much time and energy they devote to vaping, See notes. Often, people spend much more time vaping than they would smoking a cigarette, she adds. “Vaping is almost like chain smoking,” she explains. “That’s just another element that people don’t take into account.” See says some of her clients were vaping for two to three hours per day and didn’t realize it until they started tracking it in their journals.

As Rose notes, “Counseling can be helpful to look under the surface of the behavioral piece and bring a level of mindfulness to what is the thought or feeling that precedes [a client] picking up that vape.” She contends that this is not the time for counselors to use a solution-focused approach to try to quickly get clients to stop vaping.

“Smoking or vaping is a symptom, and the core problem is something internal,” Rose asserts. That’s why she believes counseling has so much to offer to people who want to quit vaping — because counseling goes beyond merely reducing the symptoms and helps to address the underlying issue. “A good competent counselor can really bring a deeper level of awareness to that core issue, [and] if that wound begins to heal, it prevents the problem from continuing,” Rose says.

A few years ago, Lalk, an ACA member who specializes in working with adolescents and young adults, had a teenager come to her because she had attempted suicide, was depressed, had past trauma, and was using lots of substances, including vaping. For the next two and a half years, Lalk worked with the client on her anxiety, depression, and maladaptive behaviors such as lying. After successfully addressing these underlying issues, the client announced on her own that she wanted to quit vaping and be substance free when she started college. In addition to continuing with counseling, the client used a nicotine patch and was able to slowly wean herself off of nicotine. Lalk says this was possible because the client started from a state of good mental health.

A mindfulness ‘patch’

See has had clients who, without thinking, pulled out their vaping devices in session. That showed how much of a habit it had become for them, she says.

Rose admits that she used to be on autopilot with vaping, and the first few days after she quit, she found herself instinctively reaching for her device. Because vaping can help release a person’s anxiety, making them feel better, it can quickly become a habit, Rose says. The challenge is unlearning this habit, which is a deliberate process, she emphasizes.

Similar to See’s tracking activity, Rose has clients journal to help them become more mindful about how and why they vape. She asks clients to write down (or at least notice) what was going on before they vaped, including their thoughts and feelings and their environmental and internal cues. She tells clients not to judge or change the situation. She simply wants them to notice it and make note of it.

“That awareness makes it more difficult to continue engaging in the same self-destructive pattern, and that pain and discomfort lead us to eventually stop the pattern,” Rose says.

Meditation is another effective way for clients to practice nonjudgmental awareness. “Yoga essentially saved me from smoking because it forced me to be still in my own body, and my cravings started to decrease the more I did yoga and the more I got comfortable with myself,” Rose says. “Any kind of mindfulness practice in any capacity can really help calm that craving because it forces you to … pause and be aware instead of act on impulse.”

“When you’re trying to quit vaping, it’s likely to unmask other anxieties,” Lalk says. The trick is to find healthy ways to process this underlying anxiety. Lalk finds patterning techniques helpful for her clients in this regard.

Lalk uses the common technique of deep breathing to illustrate patterning. Counselors often tell clients to breathe in a numerical pattern: Breathe in for four seconds, hold for six seconds, and breathe out for eight seconds, for example. This technique works because of the counting pattern, Lalk says. “Once you start trying to do [this patterning], your brain shifts and it calms you down,” she explains.

Lalk encourages clients to find a patterning technique that works for them. It could be doing beats with their hands, taking deep breathes and counting, writing poetry, or going for a walk and looking for patterns (counting every orange object that they see, for example). The key is to be mindful while doing the activity, Lalk explains. “Running is a beautiful way to pattern because you can count your steps. Just running for the sake of running if you aren’t being mindful about it isn’t nearly as helpful,” she adds.

With the help of a relaxation patterning activity, clients can calm themselves as they discuss their underlying anxiety or other issue with a counselor. Lalk points out that people often hide from whatever makes them anxious. Counselors can work with clients to instead address and acknowledge their anxiety and move toward it, not away from it, she says. Lalk says one of her clients can do four different beats with each of his hands and feet. Once he starts doing his beats, he relaxes and starts talking about his underlying issues.

See also helps clients find mindful replacements for vaping. One of her clients tracked her vaping behavior and discovered that she mostly vaped in her car — a place she spent a significant amount of time driving to school, work and other activities. Together, See and the client reviewed various alternatives that she could engage in while in her car: Would playing music help? Did she need something to do with her hands, such as squeezing a stress ball or play dough or twirling a pen in her fingers? Was her vaping habit the result of an oral fixation?

They finally decided the client would keep a water bottle in her car, and every time she wanted to vape, she would take a sip of water instead. In many cases, it’s about figuring out what clients can do so that vaping is not at the forefront of their minds, See says.

Changing the narrative

Lalk points out that people who vape are not strangers to negative, shame-based and judgmental comments from others. But this sends the wrong message, she says. The person may have tried vaping at a party and, in a short time, become addicted. This doesn’t make them a bad person; it just means they are struggling, she says.

Counseling can help clients manage negative internal and external comments. Rose has her clients practice nonjudgmental awareness. For example, a client might set a goal of not vaping all week, but at the next session, he confesses that he did vape, which in his eyes, makes him a “horrible person.” Rose helps the client separate shame (“I am a bad person because I vaped this week”) from guilt (“I feel bad for relapsing and using nicotine”). Whereas feelings of guilt can be healthy, shame and negative thinking aren’t productive, Rose says. Clients can’t shame themselves into quitting, even though they often try to do just that, she adds.

Rose frequently uses narrative therapy to help clients identify and change these harmful thoughts. She asks clients to write down all of the thoughts they have about themselves at the end of each day. Maybe they vaped that day and feel like a failure, or maybe they went the entire day without vaping and feel good about themselves.

Rose encourages clients to be mindful of the story they are creating with their words and thoughts. She asks clients, “What is the narrative you have created about yourself and your vaping?” Sometimes clients have internalized a narrative of “I’m a smoker,” and the more they say this, the more it becomes true, Rose says. So, if a client states, “I’m a smoker who quit two months ago,” Rose works with the person to change the story to an empowering one, such as, “I don’t vape. I’m not a smoker.”

“Those narratives are going to illuminate some more core issues like self-esteem or a lack of self-worth,” she adds.

Focus on the wins

See suggests that counselors can also help clients focus on their small victories. “Every time you don’t [vape] is a win,” See says. “And if a day didn’t go as great as you wanted it to, then just press that reset button and start over. You can start over at any point in the day. You don’t have to wait until tomorrow.”

See collaborates with clients to identify rewards and motivations that would work best for them. That could be buying new shoes with the money saved from not vaping that week or not allowing themselves to watch a Netflix show until they make it one day without vaping. The goal is to have clients build up their toolboxes, so she has them come up with a list of about 25 things that aren’t substances that make them feel good, such as running or going out to eat at a favorite restaurant.

Having a sufficient stockpile of motivators in their toolboxes ensures that clients will have an alternative to turn to when the craving to vape hits, See notes. Having only a few options — even if they are strong motivators — can backfire because not every tool will work in every situation. For instance, if a client is stuck in class and can’t go running when the urge to vape arises, he or she will need another tool to use in that moment. Clients should also make their goal visible to help motivate them, See adds. For example, they can put the goal on their mirror so that they see it every day.

Rose recommends the app Smoke Free because it focuses on positive reinforcement, not consequences. “It’s very strength based,” she notes. The app doesn’t show a picture of an unhealthy lung or treat the user as naive. Instead, it focuses on the benefits of not smoking and the progress people are making toward their goals.

Upon opening the Smoke Free app, users see a dashboard displaying how long (down to the hour) they have been smoke free. It calculates the degree to which the person’s health is being restored with icons that display improvements (by percentage) for pulse rate, oxygen levels, and risk of heart attack and lung cancer. It also shows users how much money they have saved by not vaping. The app includes a journal component where users can note their cravings and identify their triggers. To further encourage users, it includes progress made such as life regained in days and time not spent smoking.

“A knowledge of consequences does not dissipate the problem,” Rose says. “We absolutely know that smoking is highly correlated with lung cancer, and yet millions of people still smoke.” Younger generations often feel invincible, so focusing only on the consequences of vaping isn’t a sufficient motivator, she adds.

Forming alliances

Counselors must take steps to reach children and parents even earlier because vaping is increasingly making its way into elementary and middle schools, says See, who wrote the article “The dangers of vaping” for the website CollegiateParent. With parents, it is also helpful to educate them on what to look for because vaping devices, which can resemble a flash drive or pen, are often hidden in plain sight and are easily overlooked, See adds. 

Lalk recommends that counselors also take the time to learn from their clients. Through her alliance with some of her seventh- and eighth-grade clients, she found out which local stores were selling e-cigarettes to underage patrons. These clients also confided that one store owner said he knew the kids were underage but that the possibility of getting caught and having to pay a $250 fine was worth it because each vape sold for $60.

This knowledge helped Lalk take action in her community, including writing an article on how the shops, rather than the children, should be prosecuted, and participating in a movement to create ordinances setting new rules for establishments that sell vapes to minors. The businesses in her town now have to secure permits to sell vaping products, part of which requires acknowledging that they will not sell to minors. If store owners are found in violation of their permits, they risk losing their businesses. 

Rose used to facilitate two hours of group counseling at a rehabilitation center five days a week, and she regularly witnessed the shame reduction and healing that can happen in groups. “I believe the opposite of addiction is not just abstinence,” she says. “The opposite of addiction is connection.”

Accountability is another big piece in quitting, Rose says. She often tells clients who are struggling to call a friend with whom they can be honest or to find another way to keep themselves accountable to their goal of quitting or reducing the amount of time they vape.

Rose personally found that documenting her journey of quitting in a blog post kept her accountable. Others reached out and told her that her post made them feel less alone and motivated them to quit too. In turn, she thought twice before using her vape again because she wanted to respond to incoming emails by confirming that she was still vape free.   

See agrees that accountability and healthy rewards are smart strategies for helping clients who want to quit vaping. Peer pressure can become a big issue, especially for teenagers who don’t want to feel like the odd person out when seemingly everyone else in their crowd is vaping, she says. She advises clients to let people know they are quitting and to surround themselves with people who will empower and support them in their decision.

Accountability becomes even more important with adults, See points out, because they have more freedom and don’t automatically have someone watching over or checking in with them. That’s why having a support system is so important, she says. When clients feel like vaping, they can reach out to someone they trust and ask them for five reasons not to, See says.

See says clients might also consider posting on social media that they are quitting and openly ask for support, or they could participate in a 30-day challenge. One of Lalk’s clients participated in a challenge the person referred to as “No-Nic November.” These positive challenges can provide a good counterbalance to the vaping challenges that are so popular on social media currently.

When See dropped one of her children off at college, she noticed the dorm had placed a whiteboard with the words “Healthy Ways to Deal With Stress” written at the top. The students were adding their own suggestions, such as going to a pet store and petting a cat or going for a run. See loved this self-empowering technique and plans to incorporate it into her own practice by adding a Post-it wall where clients can add their own healthy ways of coping or their own words of encouragement.

Taking the first step

Quitting can be overwhelming, and sometimes clients don’t know where to start. See advises these clients to begin by taking small steps. Harm reduction can be a particularly effective early strategy because it empowers clients, See says. “Once they see they can harm reduce, then maybe [they] can harm reduce all the way to zero use,” she explains. “But putting them at the bottom of Mount Kilimanjaro and saying ‘get up to the top right now’ is daunting.” Instead, she asks clients what their “climb” to being vape free looks like for them. Do they want to climb fast, or do they want to climb slow?

Recently, See worked with a teenager who had been vaping for three years. She had been scared by the recent health reports related to vaping and wanted to quit. See asked this client about her motivators, and the client said she wanted to quit to protect her health, for her parents who were pressuring her to quit, and because of the monetary costs associated with vaping.

See asked the client, “What does 30 days without vaping look like?” The client’s eyes bulged. The thought of it was too much for her. So, instead, See and the teen client talked and decided she would remove e-cigarettes from just one place in her life.

By tracking her habits, the client learned she vaped mostly in her car. So, See suggested she remove the vape only from her car and also not allow her friends to vape there. See also instructed the client to notice and write down how it felt not having the vape in her car. Did she miss it? Did she reach for it without thinking? Together, they also made a list of possible replacements she could keep in her car, including a pen, candy flavored like her favorite vape juice, and a stress ball.

“That was one part of the mountain that she could climb,” See says. Feeling empowered by her success, the teenager eventually decided that she was ready to tackle the prospect of no longer vaping in her room at home.

Others, such as Rose, decide to take a faster approach and quit cold turkey. She notes that counseling can bring a level of mindful awareness to quitting and help clients figure out the underlying reasons they turn to vaping to fill an internal void. “The nicotine [and] physical addiction is a part of it, but that’s not the core issue,” she asserts.

Since she stopped vaping, Rose’s mindfulness practice has increased. She has trained herself to pause before acting on impulse. “The mental aspect is infinitely more difficult to unlearn than the physical addiction — ‘I’m sad, I’m going to vape. I’m happy, I’m going to vape. I’m bored’ — that’s the most common — ‘I’m going to vape.’ It’s something to do, something to reach for, essentially something to [help] avoid just sitting with [one’s] self in one’s own skin,” she says.

As Rose opens her Smoke Free app, her dashboard proudly displays that she hasn’t vaped for six months, 16 days and 13 hours.

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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