Take back your power & create a protective 'cocoon' to keep you safe from gambling-ads
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.
As someone working on the treatment-side of problem gambling, my job is to encourage people to try and distinguish between the factors that they have control over vs those over which they have no control. This is in line with classic CBT principles. Or if you are a 12-step program attendee- think the ‘Serenity prayer’ (‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference’) Naturally it makes more sense to try and address those that we have some control over! In the case of the current context, that would be yourselves; and more specifically your reactions- thoughts feelings and behaviours. So, in light of the constant bombardment of gambling-ads I thought it would be worth writing this post to help you ensure that you spend your energy and focus where it is really needed and does not get spilled on battling with areas where you have little or no control. To mentally ‘fight’ the gambling advertisement can feel like an uphill battle. A bit like trying to fight off mosquitos in Lapland – you might successfully avoid one, but there will be thousands to come and sooner or later one or even a couple will bite you!
Here are a couple of things that happen when we spend our attention and time thinking of how to resist the ads:
you run the risk of sustaining your denial-inspired thinking ‘this can’t be allowed…’ ‘how dare they do this when they see what I’ve lost already’. When we resist the reality of a situation, it takes us longer to come to terms with it, as we easily get stuck in thought rather than taking action.
you may prolong an unrealistic hope that changes from the industry will be the necessary bit for recovery to work. This will fuel anger, rumination and a sense of hopelessness as you will find that not enough will be done about it.
You maintain focus on the triggers and thereby maintain a sense that external forces control your ability to achieve inner peace
We need to find the equivalent to the mosquito hat. An additional layer of protection that can give you some space and freedom from feeling that you are stumbling around waiting to get bitten. If we translate it back to the current context, something that prevents you from spending your precious energy being angry at the industry that produced the ads, hoping that they will stop putting them out there and that our begging and pleading is going to have a payoff for our recovery success. Do not forget….they operate an agenda that is completely opposed to yours – they want people to gamble and lose- and they make no secret about it either. ‘The house ALWAYS wins’ You on the other hand want the exact opposite. It is critical for you to understand that an industry that has an opposing aim to yours, and that has already shown you what they are not all of a suddenly going to take mercy on you and be the thing that helped you heal and recover.
It can be tempting in life sometimes to wish for conditions to change or things to be different. This is very much part of our human nature. Not least when we feel we have been ‘wronged’ is it common to expect the ‘offender’ to pick up some responsibility and expect an apology or acknowledgement for the pain caused. Even if it may come from time to time, it is far-fetched and unlikely that it will arrive timely for you to be able to recover before more damaged has been caused. And whilst I am not advocating an entirely blasé attitude about political agendas, unfair advertising or whatever the thing you want to fight for may be- it is equally important to recognise when something is consuming our sense of power, self-control and ability to act, and instead learn to accept when the time has come for us to fold. You might argue with me on this, and be thinking ‘but that means I will just be defeated and a pushover – how can I just let them do this to me without stepping out for myself?’
Think about it- what would constitute true power in this situation?
Would it not be the greatest revenge ever to not need the bookmakers, to not care about their ads and to not spend even an ounce of your precious energy angering yourself or thinking thoughts of how you are going to stop them from influencing you?
Basically, be able to co-exist with them in a state of indifference towards the industry but with a joy and passion for all the things that make your life great…. Here are a few steps you can start taking right away to help you achieve that feeling.
Shift your attention actively to the things that are going well in your life and stay present focused. The minute that we start engaging in angry ruminations such as ‘those damn ads’ ‘how dare they…’ ‘I got to make this stop’ ‘these ads will get me..’ the mind swiftly disengages in the present moment – and out attention moves towards our negative moods and feelings and it can easily impact on our behaviours. Yes, I know – there will inevitably be small interruptions when you indeed notice just how intrusive and irritating the adverts can be when they show up mid-football or in the break when you are innocently watching a program on TV or walking down the road blissfully removed from any thoughts of gambling. I get that you neither feel you need it, nor did you ask to receive them. But in the present moment the situation is what it is – and we WILL be better off dealing with it based on the reality of the situation rather than spending time hoping, wishing and ultimately waiting for the external situation to change. This is pretty much true for anything- not just gambling ads.
Our power and control over any situation are available to you internally - and not based on external changes, even if such changes can certainly make the job easier at times.
2. Stop resisting, accept that they are there and learn to view them like the insignificant things they really are. Resisting something will make us focus harder on it even when we think battling back is helpful!
Did you ever think about how it works out sometimes when we try to resist something. Think about those mosquitos again. You are working yourself up emotionally; hearing their annoying buzzing everywhere you go. You might even take your hat off to see them better and catch a few, but before you know it, they have got you from all angles. That hat needs to remain firmly attached to your head for now. On a purely practical level, the following structures are helpful and important to have in place:
- Blocking software
- Money restrictions
I am fully aware that none of these strategies are airtight - but it is a start. On an emotional level you are now going to try to surrender instead. Surrender does not mean ‘giving up’, contrary to what many people appear to believe. It just means you let go a little…or a lot if you can. The more we resist, the more energy we use up on that thing we resist. As the image/quote I chose for an image suggests, ‘where attention goes, energy flows’ I find this to be so true- in any area of life. Think about that ex that dumped you…When did you feel more serene…? Was it when you kept thinking about how to get revenge on him/her, how to stop seeing their photos on Instagram or when you were strategizing on how to ‘win them back’? Or was it when you finally reached the stage where ‘holding on’ was too hard, and therefore you decided to let go. You just accepted that whatever will be will be and that you will be OK. That you don’t have control over the entire situation- only over you. When you surrender to a situation you put the power and focus back where it belongs- on yourself. You let go of the struggle. Instead we can then use the energy saved to start addressing practical as well as emotional issues that are holding you back from progressing. The same will apply to the gambling-ads and any other nuisance that has been conditioned to remind you of gambling, and anything and everything to do with the gambling.
Put the practical barriers in place, and take whatever constructive action you want to take ; like write a letter to an MP, post on Twitter etc – but beyond that – Let it go! Your life is so much more than the gambling and for you to move on you need to train your thoughts to be present with those other areas as well.
3. The final technique you can try is based on VISUALISATION. This is a great technique that is used widely in Eastern practices, and also in Western Psychology approaches even if I feel it often gets less attention than it deserves. It is a very useful way of priming the mind to think and act differently to how we are used to, and of course to teach it to connect better to pleasant states of mind we are trying to cultivate such as gratitude, compassion, relaxation and happiness.
You mind has spent an awful lot of time already dwelling on all things relating to gambling. You want to change the focus of the dwelling to themes that are more empowering and pleasant. We basically want to make it more habitual for the brain to hang out in those emotional states too!
So…sit down comfortably. Imagine yourself with a bright protective shield made up from positive feelings and thoughts that you are planting in yourself through your recovery process. Visualise how you would like your life to be – all the things you want to be doing for yourself and for others, and how great doing all of that will make you feel. Really try and dwell on the good feelings. Try and imagine that you are untouchable inside your little cocoon of light and love. You know which direction you are going in- try reconnecting with your values and remind yourself that nobody or nothing can take you off that path. Now try and take a few deep breaths and tune in with the calming effect it has on your body. This will activate the parasympathetic nervous system and assist to make you feel relaxed and centered. Everything you need is here for you in this present moment, and any disturbances is just the mind trying to steer you off your path. Try and bring your attention to how it feels right in this moment. Bring in any feelings of gratitude for steps already taken, the people/things that are still in your life and the joy of just being free from the gambling. If you find yourself unable to connect with the feelings of joy, gratitude etc try and recall a time when you had one of those feelings and think about that particular situation until the feeling is accessible to you. The more real you can make it feel the better this will work. This shield that you have now built up mentally is going to act to keep your happiness and joy locked in – and keeping on a distance from you all the gambling related triggers, including the advertising. Try and visualise how the ads that keep bothering you are present, and how your cocoon is protecting you all the time, making any gambling-ads and other irritating stimuli bounce off of you. You are winning each time one of those ads gets presented, because for each time it is another time that you don’t act on it. This will reinforce your brain to gradually care less about their presence. You can practice through visualisations how the ads become nothing but meaningless words on a piece of paper/computer screen/tv screen etc. Every time you get faced with an ad try to reconnect with the feeling of being in your little cocoon. Practice makes perfect – it took you a while to condition the mind to respond to gambling related stimuli in certain ways – now have patience and tolerance for the fact that it needs to lose some of those unhelpful connections it has made.
I hope you will have some help from these techniques!
Good Luck X
Recommended reading: (none of these are on the topic of gambling but are great for fleshing out the understanding of the techniques discussed in this blog post)
Chödrön Pema (2009) Taking the leap; freeing ourselves from old habits and fears
(Fantastic read about using Buddhist wisdom to break away from unhelpful habits and behaviours. Contains a lot of Buddhist terminology but is still easy to read )
Hanson, Richard ( 2014 ) Hardwiring Happiness; How to reshape your brain and your life.
(This is very user friendly and a great hands-on book that teaches you how to build new neural structures to protect you and help you feel at peace, through the use of positive experiences form our everyday lives. As all of his other books it makes neuroplasticity understandable)