One of the issues about behavioural addictions is that they are often taken less seriously than drug and alcohol addictions. Not least from a position of stigma – where behavioural addictions sometimes get equated to ‘a lack of willpower’ and ‘weak character’ etc, but I find that even the client him/herself is not always showing adequate respect for their addiction. This shows up as reluctance or in some cases flat out unwillingness to do the important work on blocking the access to the gambling. As long as you are keen to put a definite end to the gambling, but find yourself still not focusing on creating these barriers – then you are operating as if the gambling is still under voluntary control at all times.
Remember- At this point it should begin to get obvious for you that this is not the case. You would not be visiting this blog otherwise.
For a more in-depth discussion around breaking out of denial and living in reality you can read my previous blog post on this topic here. This present article is merely going to focus on the FIRST & ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY STEP that any gambler should take ASAP if they are serious about quitting:
Block/reduce your access to money. Yes, this is correct. No ifs, no buts. This NEEDS to happen.
Having worked with countless gamblers in treatment over the last 15 years, I am aware of what thoughts and resistances comes up when this suggestion is made. For many this is an already obvious step, but still one that has not been taken. In fact, there is no one strategy that I suggest as a clinician that is met with more resistance than this one.
Some of the common resistances are..
‘I should be able to recovery anyway (without blocking access to anything) – what’s the point if I have to live like a kid again anyway…’
‘if I am not gambling simply because I cannot get to my money it is not really recovery – then I am just forced to avoid it…so then there is no point’
‘no way can I live like this long term anyway’
‘but what if I had an emergency’
‘what kind of a man/woman would I be if I don’t have access to my own money…’
In my previous posts I have gone into depth in analysing these distortions. This can be worthwhile doing as time goes by. But for now, let’s just use a few simple facts as evidence for why this step needs to happen irrespective of how reluctant you currently feel:
a) Check your own track record with money – i.e,, the facts of your gambling history. When did you ever NOT gamble when you had open access to money. Even if you were able to hang on to it for a day or so, if you still ended up gambling with it sooner or later, that is sufficient evidence to suggest that you will feel that way inclined again, given the same cirucumstances presenting. That’s why we don’t want to take that risk again.
b) If this was any other addiction – let’s say to a drug- would you think it was possible to walk around with the drug in your pocket and yet be expected not slip up? Money and a venue are the means required for you to fulfil your addiction. You need to at least disrupt your access to one of them! Remember your addiction as such does not care whether it is addicted to drugs or gambling; what I mean by that is that just because money is something that we also need in our daily life in a different way than we need say drugs- the addiction itself does not take this into consideration. Addiction is addiction in this respect. Please mind that it does not mean you have to live as a limited adult- there are loads of clever ways of not having direct access to your money but still be able to enjoy a rich lifestyle. You just need to problem solve this very well depending on your individual situation.
‘ Since I stopped gambling my emotional pain is at an all-time high. Am I meant to feel worse when I finally stopped?’
Not that I think I need to tell you this – but just in case you don’t feel it: putting an end to your gambling is a major achievement. Those of you who have done it would know how much effort, failed attempts and agony it took you to get there. Unlike the treatment for substance misuse, people addicted to gambling typically are treated on an out-patient basis. That’s if you access treatment. For this reason you will probably not be reaping the benefits of being ‘locked away’ from the gambling (unless you are one of the few who has been to a residential rehab to help you deal with your disordered gambling). Constantly needing to keep yourself away from the gambling, even in the early days when the feelings tend to run particularly strong, is a challenging task that requires tremendous work and energy. One of the most difficult challenges during this time tends to be the emergence of unpleasant feelings that have typically been suppressed and avoided for some time. Coming from the perspective of a person who has gotten their brains used to instant relief and gratification through the use of gambling, this is not the best of news. Whilst the negative feelings push through, so does the realisation that you might now be finding yourself feeling very vulnerable and bit ‘bare’ without the option for some ‘pain medication’ in the form of more gambling.
Let’s expand on this for a minute; Having realised that your addiction did not lead you to a good place is a valuable realisation, and certainly a piece of knowledge you want to keep close to you at all times. And stopping will absolutely lead to an improvement in your life longer term. But that time may just not be here yet. Having been hooked on gambling means the brain has by now become dependent on frequent and powerful ‘rewards’ (not that rewards here is referring to the brain’s perception of reward; which at times could be a feeling of buzz but other times might be just feeling less miserable or low) and as such when you stop; for a period of time things might on many levels feel worse than when you were still gambling.
In summary; you feel great about giving up the gambling. But…. You are now dealing with:
Day to day problems in life; with the added impact of dealing with everyone’s disappointment and distrust towards you
The ‘trail of crap’ your gambling has created for you yourself and people around you- these may include loss of relationships, house, jobs and lifestyle that you once enjoyed
The emotional pain that might have been there even before the gambling started; essentially the difficult feelings that made it easier for the gambling to get a foothold in your life to begin with
…and likely many other unpleasant feelings such as anxiety, shame, regret, guilt etc.
Rather than panicking, please accept that overcoming the difficulty in managing feelings is what long term recovery really is all about; so that you will be able to live fully and without constant fear of lapsing. There are no short-cuts, recovery will inevitably need to involve the learning of new emotional coping strategies. These aren’t acquired overnight and will require both practice and patience- two qualities that are rare for addicted people to exhibit.
In this article we take a step further back and explore some of the early steps you might wish to take if you have just come to the realisation that you are addicted to gambling.
In the way I preach to my gamblers in session – I am here offering a mini-lecture ( highly oversimplified and as jargon free as possible ) followed by some small first steps that you use to get yourself out of your downward spiral.
Our deluding brains…
Your brain features a couple of parts that may be worth familiarising yourself with at this point in time:
The Emotional Brain ( limbic system) ; This part of our brain has a lot of power over our behaviours- and for good reasons. This primitive part of our brain, which indeed has not evolved a whole lot since we lived in caves; is interested in survival – hence will try to increase behaviours that are associated with pleasure, and decrease those that are associated with pain. When it experiences surges in dopamine it will interpret this as a sign that we have found a behaviour worth repeating and selecting again and again over other behaviours. In the case of gambling, the behaviour gives such a high for the brain, that other (more averagely stimulating activities) will cease to feel as interesting over time; causing a vicious cycle of behaviour repetition and further reinforcement. These habits are remembered by the brain and cause the brain to crave for them when there is an absence of engaging. It longs for the change in emotional state whether it was used to make you feel high or just to reduce a low in mood. To make matters even more complicated the activities become associated with a range of every day cues through the process of conditioning and after a while perfectly innocent activities, people, scenarios etc will lead to the automatic onset of thoughts and feelings associated with gambling.
So how on earth can I still want to gamble when I HATE what it has done to my life? I mean…you say that it gets reinforced because it feels good but for me it feels like crap when I gamble these days…
Last few months there has been a lot of talking about gambling advertising, both here in the UK and also during my recent visit to my country of origin- Sweden. I can only assume there are similar situations in many other countries too.
The adverts for gambling are sneaky, tempting, often targeted and of course are designed to trigger even the most resistant of people to come back for another bet. If nothing else works – they might go as far as they did to one of my gambling addicted homeless ladies and send a text message directly to her phone offering a few free spins at a nearby arcade.
The gambling industry is big business which operates with the aim of increasing its profitability. What else is new? It has never been known for caring deeply about the emotional needs of the individuals that lose their money inside of its facilities. Their social responsibility is something that is being increasingly addressed- but for now let’s face it - it is in many ways a ruthless money-making machinery that does not differentiate how, or from whom, the money comes in. I felt the need to write this as to prevent angry retaliation for those wanting to engage heavily in active outrage about the ads- because really this post is going to be about helping you withstand the relentless advertising we are currently faced with. It is not about expressing my support for how they operate - there is little doubt that gambling-ads can be harmful and will continue to ‘suck in’ those who still have plenty to lose and create a false sense of hope for those who have little to lose.
I got inspired to write this post, having witnessed far too many problem gamblers who through their obsessions about the pursuing of business from the industry, experience an unhelpful shift in the focus away from what brings them forward in their recovery. Having previously been obsessed with the gambling in a destructive manner, as you are now trying to abstain from that, the mind is kind of looking for a new thing to fixate on. We DO NOT want that new thing to become the industry or its advertisement (Unless that focus is being used for problem solving and protecting you of course). The main focus for now, and until you are safely underway in your recovery, be on all the good stuff that is starting to constitute your life without gambling!
There is no harm being an activist and lobbying for changes that matter for public health- in fact, it can be empowering to feel that your lessons from recovery can be used to help prevent others, however, by the time obstacles and triggers become the main focus of our attention we can easily become preoccupied and end up in a state of anger, disappointment, sadness. At this point, focusing on those things is happening at the expense of the most important part of all – YOU yourself and your own personal recovery.
I have seen people so vengeful, angry and desperate to ‘get back’ what they lost or to ‘beat the bookies’ , that they end up spending time in prison due to ‘smashing’ a machine or committing illicit acts to fund further gambling to chase after losses. Or lose sleep and wellness in a state of ruminating angrily over the brazenness of those ads and how they are conspiring to pull one back in to gamble. At this level your feelings and energy expenditure is going to be wasted and counter-productive for your own progress
It is understandable that the rage and anger is there, not least given the ever-increasing numbers of people who are becoming addicted, many of whom are young people. Gambling addiction is a very real and very serious problem that we are facing now more than ever before as a result of the increased access and promotion for it as a fun and sociable activity. In reality, for some people, it can wreck lives and create suffering, not just for the gambler themselves but for the entire system surrounding him/her. But at the same time as it is understandable, you have to remember that it was the focus away from you and your life - and onto the gambling- that lead you down a path of sorrow. Continuing to focus on how they ‘got you’ and are ‘making it impossible to avoid them’ will typically result in more sorrow and hopelessness.
Is my helping really helping? Supporting a family member with gambling addiction….
Having posted a couple of blog posts by now for people who struggle with gambling addiction; I thought it was high time to also do one for those trying to support the addicted person. As much as the problem gambler will struggle within both from their inability to stop and from the damaging effects of their gambling on loved ones – there is little doubt that the family/spouses/parents struggle just as much. If you are a loved one reading this chances are that you will have suffered with some of the following symptoms….
· Anxiety & stress
· Fear and panic about their safety
· Low mood & tearfulness
· Feeling totally out of control
· Anger and disappointment
· Swinging between feelings of anger and disappointment to hopefulness
· Desperation to help; only to later feel angry that you did help
· Paranoia and obsession about their gambling
….and many more
Chances are that you are on an emotional rollercoster that in many ways mimics the one that your gambling addicted family member – with the addition of a good dose of disbelief, shock and horror about their continued activities; even at times when they looked you in the eye and swore they would stop. You wonder if they meant it or if they have become so cold-blooded that they actually don’t care how you feel anymore?
Is this the person I gave birth to/married ? …you might wonder. How could they be so caring and sensible in some ways and suddenly so callous and calculating? Maybe I misjudged them? Perhaps I am a bit stupid after all having believed what they said to me?
Last week in my group for homeless problem gamblers we had a session on self-love, and the questions that was being asked was; How to start loving oneself after all the damage inflicted by their addiction? Several group members frowned upon hearing the word self-love and one said ‘but seriously – how can I love this (pointing at self) – look at what has become of me’. What followed was a really good discussion about this ultra-important feeling for ourselves, that in its absence underlies pretty much all things bad in this world. Without loving ourselves we end up with a perforated filter for negative influences in our life, poor boundaries, and as if that was not enough we can use our lack of self-love to justify more disgraceful behaviours towards ourselves and others with the justification of ‘not being worthy anyway’. We can become habituated to situations and behaviours from others that are less than ideal; since we don’t value ourselves enough to see that we need to have better boundaries and say no. Last but not least, it also paves the way for feelings of fear, threat, and negative self-comparisons that trigger envy and in certain cases even hatred of self and others. This is a vicious cycle, and one that can end us up in a really bad place where we don’t have even a shred of respect left for our self. Needless to say, the ideal solution is just to start loving yourself; but what if all you have genuinely done a lot of damage? And if the things we have done have actually been so bad that we find it hard to even accept that it happened? How then is it possible to take such a step and start seeing oneself as an individual worthy of those things that are seemingly there for others to have. How can we allow ourselves to go against our own intuition and treat us well when everything and everyone suggests we should engage in self-punishment and deprivation?
Here are some of the great ideas we came up with in the group this week:
# self excluding and taking other proactive steps to limit the gambling from causing further damage in ones life. Depending on the country you live and what sort of gambling you have been known to engage in, the steps you take here might vary greatly. If you live in the UK there are a few good apps that will make it impossible for you to gamble online. You can also ensure that you take proactive steps and visit the bookmakers that you have been frequenting requesting to complete the paperwork for self-exclusion. Yes, this is not airtight, and I know there are millions of shops around but this step can actually feel empowering even if there are always going to be ways to gamble if you really set your mind to do it. Buy time, empower yourself by acting with assertiveness and take this step anyway. Blocking your access to gambling is the most fundamental and important step any gambler can take and a huge display of recognising that you deserve better than being able to continue to sabotage your life by further betting.
# Start to Treat yourself well in small ways daily Ok agreed- this one sounds so cliché and obvious. But simultaneously please recognise how difficult it actually is to follow this seemingly simple formula. Of course it sounds great to start treating yourself to a decent lunch, going to bed at a time that allows adequate sleep, allowing yourself a new hair cut or whatever it is. Most people I speak to would be able to easily generate a nice long list of things that they would think constitute self-caring behaviours but so few in comparison will actually do any of them for themselves. It is not uncommon for people in general to have a bit of disconnect between what people know they should do and and what they actually do – but there should not be an entire canyon between the two. Start bridging that gap by highlighting just one or two small things that you can insert into your life starting today: do those until they become natural and habitual and then add another one. Building up slowly will always make it more likely for the behaviours to stick longer term since you repeat those small changes until they are no longer requiring of the same level conscious processing. Try and renovate yourself in a day and you will tire out and end up feeling like it is ‘hard work’ to treat yourself well.
# Stop tormenting yourself with what has already happened and focus on future action instead
This step is a lot harder than it sounds. We all know behaviours can end up becoming ingrained, repetitive habits – most people have some habit they have tried to get rid of either successfully or unsuccessfully – think nail biting, thumb sucking, spot-picking or whatever you have have been ‘stuck on’ yourself. It takes effort to stop doing something. It is going to take effort in giving up the gambling. But when you begin to break free it gets easier. You feel freer. On many levels it can feel like being ‘unshackled’ from routines and rituals you knew were just damaging for you. And you can use that energy to continue breaking free and living a fuller life. What many people don’t seem to realise is that our thinking get into the same rigid patterns. The brain starts sounding like a broken record quite easily when we feed it the same experience again and again. Remember ; our emotional mind does not understand any better as it is busy looking out for our survival hence absorbs only the short-term aftermaths. Any constructed scenario that is followed out again and again and generates nice feelings, even if ever so temporary, will be memorised. The thoughts will take on whichever flavour we feed it – meaning if you teach it that going gambling makes you feel high and excited (short term) we need to recall that this is all that part of our brain cares about. Before we know it our brain will have picked up that the it will get to experience a nice ‘lift’ in mood ( or a reduction in a low) – simply by giving incessant prompts to the person to be engaging in the gambling. It basically becomes a mental habit. The mind starts thinking in particular ways more and more often, maybe even obsessively. On the flipside it can also get hooked on extensive rumination about past negative experience, failures and wrong doings. Or rehash obsessively over a past or future agony in a failed attempt to gain closure and aqcuire learning. The reason I explain it in this slightly childish and basic way is so that you can start treating that part of your mind with some detachment yet some understanding and compassion. Yes it will keep firing away with the same broken-record-spiel any chance it gets. But do you need to listen in so hard? Keep moving to better tunes and learn to feed the brain with new fresh info from which it can create new thinking habits. Your mind should be focused on the present moment for you to experience the greatest relief and enjoyment. That does not mean there are no problems to sort; but it means that you keep your mind clear enough to actually be able to sort them while enjoying life a little.
Doomed if you have …doomed if you don’t have…. The impossible role of Money for addicted gamblers and how to think about it
One of the topics that often preoccupies early day interventions for problem gamblers is that of Money. Each month of the year presents its own challenges relating to money and I thought it would be worth taking a look at the very complex role of money in the life of a problem gambler; and how having better awareness of your relationship with money can help you remain abstinent in the longer term. It can be tempting to think that paying attention to money is counterproductive to abstinence as it could ‘feed an obsession’ at a time when you are busy trying to cut your losses and move on. Not addressing your attachment to money can however have the reverse effect that you are looking for and hence I have put together a small list of points to consider as you are now entering your recovery.
Some of the complicated contradictions with money in problem gambling….
# Having money can often lead to an urge to want to gamble
# Having NO money can often lead to an urge to go gambling (you quickly want to make some more)
# Being in debt can be depressing; and the prospect of long-term repayment plans can make a gambler feel tempted to have ‘a quick win’ instead
# Living ‘hand-to-mouth’ often leads to a very short-term focus (and those living hand to mouth will usually adapt a short term focus depending on what caused what) – one where no long term plan for money exist. This state often makes people more likely to justify a little bet; in the end of the day it does not feel like there is that much to loose .. (but of course it makes it impossible to get out of the hole that gambling has created).
# Having no access to money over long periods of time often makes people feel infantilised, less achieved and sometimes a bit bored; all of which can lead to urges to want to gamble
# having outgoings monitored by a loved one often feels intrusive and difficult; and can sometimes add further strain to already strained relationships
#having nobody monitoring accounts and outgoings represents a huge risk for the gambler as they can then convince themselves that they are just ‘using a bit’ to increase the money they have, something that will result in more chasing and more losses.
It would be fair to say that most people would like to have a bit more money. This is not isolated to gamblers at all – however unlike for people suffering with other addictions- gamblers are the only ones who think (from time to time at least) that their addiction is going to make them rich and, if all goes to plan, also possibly help put the addiction to rest. This is of course far from the truth. But it does not take away from the fact that you still might want and need some more money in your life.
So how is one supposed to relate to money when it has become a curse both in its presence and in its absence? Money constitutes the absolute biggest trigger for any problem gambler! It is the very means required to fulfil your gambling addiction and as such can be equated to 'the bottle' for an alcoholic or direct drug access to a person addicted to drugs. The difference is that we still need money to live hence why significant efforts need to go into blocking access to money, and ensuring that these restrictions are not suddenly taken out or reduced for reasons that tend to be driven by ego needs and strange justifications for why life will never be the same with these restrictions in place.
The role of money is highly complicated and it will be worth it for you to spend some time reflecting over the following points. I have written them in ‘I’ format so that you can really pretend like you are thinking it to aid you in reality checking some of the distortions that can easily occur.. .
Rules of thumb for money relating & 3 things I can do right now...
# Although I keep thinking I need money – the fact is I don’t have any due to gambling anyway (and I have gambled a long time) – so is it possible that I actually need money less than I realise?
# 2. "Jag ska sluta, jag ska bara fortsätta tills jag ”vunnit tillbaka” allt jag förlorat
Dessa orden har jag hört av fler spelberoende än jag ens kan räkna. Många av dem med avservärda skulder och förödelse på flera fronter i livet pga långvarigt spelberoende. Visserligen kan detta "argument" eller rationalisering i sig vara mycket övertygande. Det är ett åtminstonne delvis ett erkännande att spelandet inte längre är en önskvärd aktivitet och att det behöver upphöra. Dessutom existerar nu en känsla av oro över skulder som har accumulerats under processen där förluster jagas. Detta är ju inte heller bra. De flesta spelberoende kommer nu också att förstå att om spelandet var ansvarigt för att skapa den här nivån av skuld till att börja med, finns det verkligen en överhängande risk att ytterligare spel, som ett sätt att återställa skulder, inte är en kanonlösning! Så även om det finns en uppriktig avsikt att sluta spela, handlar upphängningen här om att ha "bara den där sista insatsen" som gör att du kan sluta spela, och samtidigt sopa igen de finansiella spår som producerats under åren. Alla kommer vara glada igen.
Det här är naturligtvis en stor risk att ta och ett av problemen är att många spelare inte har något emot att ta den risken. Speciellt inte eftersom många bedövats i sina känslor både vad gäller värdet av pengar och i relation till att existera under högriskförhållanden. Om du är en spelare som läser detta – kan det vara viktigt att identifiera de karaktärsdrag som eventuellt bidragit till ett starkt intresse för spel. Därmed är det inte sagt att spelberoende alltid är knutet till din personlighet - eller att varje spelare är en risktagande och impulsiv, men det finns ingen tvekan om att risktagare och högre impulsivitetsnivåer är överrepresenterade bland spelberoende personer. Något som har backats upp av mycket forskning.
Även om du inte är impulsiv eller benägen att ta höga risker chansen är det troligt att du trubbats av nämnvärt emotionellt både till den positiva ”buzzen” och även risken som tidigare nämnt och därmed känner att det känns helt rimiligt att öka insatsen i jakt på både pengar och den hypnotiserande känsla som bjuds under spelseansen. I drogmissbruk ökar den drogberoende personen dosen och frekvensen för intag för att kunna uppnå samma magiska känsla som infann sig vid de första brukarfillfällena.
I spelberoende representeras tolerans av faktorer såsom ökad insats, mer frekvent och frantiskt spelande, och sist men inte minst en hög nivå av desperation som leder till att den spelande ej längre bryr sig om vad de egentligen spelar på bara det finns en liten chans till att vinna.
#3. ‘ But I’ve ‘invested’ so much….no way can I quit now’
#4. ‘It will take too long to repay my debts any other way…’
#5. ‘I just need to be more focused…….’
#6 ‘if I can go back to how I used to gamble it might work’
#7 ‘No I am not addicted, it is not as if I wake up craving or anything….’
#8 ‘If I was addicted to gambling, surely I would have big debt. Since I don’t – it means I don’t have an issue’
Previously in this blog series I have posted individual ‘lies’ and responded to them. I have here decided to put an entire 5 lies together and address them together as they are slightly different but still arrive at the same issue. They are all in complete contradiction of REALITY and if you were to go with the statements you would be required to deny at least aspects of your current life situation to yourself. Some of them you may wish to do your own breakdown with – if they are particularly relevant for you.
Denial is a central topic in addiction – one of the hallmarks in fact, irrespective of if we are talking about alcohol, gambling, sex and pornography or anything else. Denial is an also prevalent in our thinking day to day even when unrelated to addiction. If you are someone who pays close attention to your thoughts, you won’t have to look far before you can detect times in the day when we are likely to go into momentary denial about something.
‘nooooo I didn’t just leave my keys and lock myself out, did I?’
‘I cannot believe I missed the train, I am going to be late for the interview now’
Clearly these moments of denial are slightly different from the often-prolonged state of denial seen in individuals with addiction.
#2. I WILL STOP, I’M JUST GAMBLING TIL’ I’VE RECOVERED MY LOSSES...
These are the words of many problem gamblers presenting in therapy. Many of whom have significant debts and devastation has been caused to many areas of life as a result of gambling. Admittedly this ‘argument’ or rationalisation itself can be very convincing. There is a sincere acknowledgment that the gambling is no longer a desirable activity and that it does need to stop. Additionally, there is a sense of unease about debts that have been run during the process of chasing losses- and of course it’s not hard to see that this is not good. Most problem gamblers will also at this point intellectually be able to realise that if the gambling was responsible for running up the debt in the first place: there is indeed an overwhelming risk that further gambling, as a way to recover the debt, is not a great way to go forward. So, while there is a sincere intention about quitting the gambling, the belief here is about having ‘just that final bet’ that will enable them to quit with a clean slate. Everyone will be happy again. This is of course a huge risk to take and the trouble is that many gamblers don’t really mind taking that risk. If you are a gambler reading this – it is important to recognise what character features in yourself brought you to take such an interest in gambling to begin with. Not saying that it is always tied in with your personality – or that every gambler is a risk taker, but there is little doubt that risk-takers are over represented amongst problem gamblers. And even if you are not one of them, chances are that you have ‘numbed out’ to your fear of taking risks with money over time whilst putting bets on that are beyond what you can afford. Coming back to the reasoning behind the idea of using gambling to recover from gambling problems- if often goes something like this 'rather take that risk and might win than having a guarantee of long and boring payback plan...’ and/or ‘if I just concentrate better/focus on x stock/pick the 'right' machine it could work out and I might win’