4 first steps towards quitting your gambling habit...

In the last blog article I talked about making a plan for how to manage triggers.  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… 


  This is a question that many problem gamblers have posed to me in clinic over the years. And there is no disputing that the gambling at that point is causing nothing but pain. Trouble is … even if gambling is NOW feeling like something that you hate; the emotional brain has a very different memory stored. Namely how it feels and felt in the very short term when you engage in gambling. Perhaps those first early wins, or all of those times where you enjoyed a buzzy sensation, or the times when you felt dreadful and gambling actually helped you to ‘zone out’ for a couple of minutes. Those memories get stored as little snippets of information that can then be ‘served’ as suggestions next time the person experiences distress, craving or any other unpleasant mood states. Or likewise, every time that one wants to experience a bit of a lift from boredom or a ‘high’ in life. The brain truly is clever and you can perhaps begin to understand how our ancestors would have been very well served by this feature.  In the modern world…it can be deluding to say the least.  The truth is though, that even if these days the you walk into the gambling venue as a matter of compulsion- a bit like you are ‘carrying out a job’  in an emotionless state; the brain will still experience a change even if it is just taking you from a real low to a state of neutrality. The problem is that as you have progressed with your gambling addiction- the continued impact on the reward pathway; and the increased dopamine activity experienced, has lead to tolerance. (I will talk more about tolerance in a future blog post) Soon enough- no wins in the world tends to satisfy the emotional ‘needs’ of a deeply entrenched problem gambler! Instead it fuels a greed for more.  It is not vital to understand the ins and outs of brain chemistry to help yourself with your addiction. But it is important to have a basic knowledge of how this part of the brain will act to delude you- even at times when all is seemingly well. Say after a great day at work, or on a sunny Friday afternoon when you accomplished all your targets for the week.   The need for reward will literally SNEAK up on you.  Which is why this part of your brain cannot act as a reliable source of information for you.  


So after this mini-lecture in brain science you might feel ready for some useful steps for how to try and break out of this vicious spiral:



1.    Recognise that your mind has become an unreliable source of information!!

When your brain goes into conflict you will hear some defunct thoughts occurring; they might sound something like this: ‘ c’mon one bet wont hurt’ ‘let’s make these £50 into £500 so I can repay my debt and stop after’ ‘only this one more..’  and are basically distortions that are generated by our emotional brain to get ‘one up’ over the more rational and self-aware self. Trouble is – that these thoughts evoke some strong feelings in us. Not least the cravings that inevitably make us far more likely to act in a way that we will later come to regret.

2.    Understand what is the REAL you and what part is your addiction speaking to you in seductive ways..

Most people would be well aware that the addictive beast hiding inside the head is sneaky, convincing and highly innovative and holds a PHD in Creative Excuse making. It can pick any little detail from your life and transform it quickly into a convincing argument to why gambling is just the thing you need. This is true not just for gambling addiction- it is relevant pretty much any time that you are in conflict with yourself about something you should do but don’t want to – or the reverse -feel like doing but really shouldn’t do. And as if seductiveness of this part of the brain was not enough – we are conditioned and very pleased to finally be served with some nice excuses to  justify our less desirable behaviours. Therefore we might be very keen to hear it and may not be filtering very well at this time. In fact, like I often tell my clients, it is wise to have made a firm decision within yourself before so that when these thoughts turn up;  you know already that they will try hard to delude you. Come with the mindset of ‘let’s wait and see’ and you will simply see yourself to the nearest gambling facility without realising what you are up to until the money is lost.  If you can come to a good understanding with yourself that this is just a very addicted part of you that is trying to persuade the other side of your brain that knows a lot better; you might be able to withstand it.   In many circumstances – in gambling I would say most- no matter the efforts this understanding still is not enough in which case number 3 will be a good step to resort to!


3.       Pre-commit to steps that you cannot get out of      This step is the ULTIMATE way to keep yourself accountable. If done correctly you will simply be unable to carry out any gambling no matter how much you crave for it.  In sessions with people I often call this technique ‘tie yourself to the mast’ as inspired by a great chapter in the book ‘Willpower the man’s greatest strength’ *(a book I would highly recommend to anyone interested in understanding more about the topic of willpower and self-discipline). The technique and the saying in turn are from the old Odyssey story in which Odysseus himself asked to be tied to the mast of his ship to prevent himself from falling for the alluring sounds of the sirens, that would otherwise tempt him to throw himself overboard. How would this type of technique relate to my gambling you might wonder..?   Think about it; there are a only few things required to gamble.  Money is one. And something to gamble on is the other.  Out of these two I have found that going for the money is by far the more secure option even if I would not dismiss the importance of blocking yourself from gambling related websites, casinos, bookmakers etc by the process of self-exclusion or blocking soft-wares and apps. ( There are some great apps around these days that efficiently block all gambling from your personal devices)  The trouble we have is that the venues may appear endless.  And once the addiction is in place- the hunt for yet another one might just keep going if the money is in hand.   Trying to block  the access to money AS WELL as blocking your access to gambling venues on the other hand creates an incredibly tight barrier to gambling. So tight though that the vast majority of clients I see in therapy think many times (and relapse many times) before implementing this step in fear of losing the ability to carry out their also much loved activity of gambling. And for some there are a range of other reasons. I urge you to consider the validity of those reasons and weigh them against the very likely prospect that you will gamble again if you don’t change anything at all in terms of your money access.   For some, the dependency is so great that it feels scary to take away the only route to do carry it out.    It is OK to feel like that. But even so, it is still questionable whether it is worth going to the last penny every time you get paid before accepting that you are simply not able to control yourself with the money available….




4.       Recognise that you are, and will always be, a sucker for the gambling. And as rough as it is: accept that you have lost CONTROL over your addiction.   People don’t like to hear that they have lost control. So little do they like that they lost control that they would rather deny to themselves that they have lost control and keep acting as if they can assert some skill and stoppers over their gambling.  GA  (and all the other fellowships) are often using this one as one of their first mantras. Many people appear to take it the wrong way. ‘ That’s just defeatist’   ‘If I accept that I have no control how can I change myself’      so that means they won then – I need to prove that I can beat this addiction  even when I have money otherwise what’s the point’.     So in order to illustrate what a grave error it is to believe that you can control your addiction – let’s consider the opposite; that you continue believing that you have good control over your gambling and that it is only circumstantial that you keep losing. It is the fault of the moment, the weather on the day, the lack of luck, the croupier, that particular machine (insert your excuse – I have heard some fascinating ones over the years!). What is then going to constitute the point where you decide to take charge?   You can probably see where this is going. There will always be another excuse that you can use. There is absolutely nothing that will happen that is going to give you more control over your gambling except if you take actions to restrain yourself and stop engaging with it.  Doing that of course requires you to fully own that you have problem and usually also putting some practical strategies in place that will make it harder for you to gamble; even at times when motivation to be in recovery is low  - and the temptation to revert back to more gambling Is compelling.


I hope you will find these ideas helpful. Did you enjoy reading this? 

   Your feedback is welcome   annika@headward.co.uk