Giving up gambling? How to deal with the ‘pain-hangover’
‘ 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.
Here are some common examples of UNHELPFUL ways of relating to emotional pain that I see in clients:
- Pretend the pain is not there and try to ‘stuff away’, escape from and avoid their feelings altogether
- Blame the feeling on the gambling, then go gambling some more to forget all about the problems; or at least get a momentary sense of numbing/soothing of the intensely negative feeling
- Start ruminating both on the pain itself and also on the reasons you have it. All the gambling you did, the people you hurt, and the things that you destroyed…. And suddenly the pain seems so justified and insurmountably big and powerful that there seems to be absolutely no way you can cope with it all
- Thinking that the pain is going to last forever and that it will make you combust – then coping by picking up another behaviour aimed at a short-term fix, such as overeating, compulsive shopping or reliance on drugs and/or alcohol
- Thinking that you deserve nothing other than painful feelings and hence hanging on to a belief system that supports you staying stuck in life.
This may all sound pretty depressing, but the good news is that if you put your mind to it, you will be able to get through this!
Before we get to the part of how we should deal with it – let’s learn some facts about emotional pain…
Pain in any form, be it physical or emotional, is a natural response indicating to us that something is wrong. As can be imagined, in early recovery it is perfectly natural for you to feel it. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that having pain at this stage, after you just stopped gambling, can even be a sign of a healthy mindset and healthy values of a person who is waking up to what they have done. It means you have empathy. You have remorse. You feel guilty and bad about what has happened. You have good values and intentions and your behaviour as of late has not been congruent with such values.
Therefore- you feel terrible. Feeling the pain in response to letting yourself and others down is not strange or uncommon- try and imagine what it would say about you if you had no feelings at all about it.
There is a difference between feeling the pain and wollowing in it: a distinction we will come back to in a minute..
There is a good chance that you are person who never actually learnt how to deal well with emotional pain even before the gambling came about to take over as a temporary band-aid. Have you, like me, ever questioned why during all those years we spend in school we learn so much important stuff about history, places, people, science; but no advice (as far as I recall) was provided as to how we manage ourselves emotionally. Or how important it is to look after our own needs and problems appropriately. What do we do when our body is having so much pain that our body and mind feels like our worst enemy? Like a place that makes us feel unsafe or unsettled and where nobody wishes to rest? In an ideal world, this is what we should all learn from our parents. The reality is that there is a very large population out there, for whom this skill has not been properly instilled leaving a skills deficit in dealing with difficult challenging emotions. This can for many be the vulnerability that made them vulnerable to pick up gambling to begin with.
So how should we manage emotional pain?
Let’s for a moment consider how we as humans deal with physical pain. Let’s think about childbirth or if you have not had children or you are a man, think about having a painful surgery or a broken leg. How are we instructed to deal with the pain?
That’s right; at no point did anyone tell us to sweep the pain under the rug, pretend it is not there and do something, no matter how harmful, to temporarily numb it out or pretend it isn’t there. Someone might have encouraged you to breathe deeply through it, or to fix your attention on to something else. Or to leave the injury alone for a bit, let it rest, take it easy and wait for it to heal.
Avoiding emotional pain simply does not work long term..
When the pain is emotional, most people are keen to do the total opposite of what they know is a smart way of managing physical pain, even if logically we can probably see that whichever pain we are trying to cope with- the techniques are actually very similar. We try hard to avoid the feelings, we get into patterns where we even avoid the triggers of the feelings, and on occasions we try to deal with the overflow by using a maladaptive quick-fix that acts to remove us from our experience of the feelings. All because it is too painful. Please accept that this is very common pattern of emotional ‘coping’ that many people get stuck in, with or without addictions, but for sure it does not help if addiction has become the way in which you started managing yours.
Our body is a bit like a pressure cooker- the more pressure it accumulates, the more likely the lid will eventually fly wide and the content of the pot will splatter all over in an uncontrollable fashion. We don’t need this to be the way we relate to our feelings. This will only make us feel out of control and helpless. Our feelings need to be validated and ventilated/released so that we can prevent the build-up of pressure!
What does the pain mean?
Having painful thoughts and feelings can be a valuable messenger for us. It means you have to acknowledge that something that is happening or something you are doing is not good for you and perhaps not lining up well with your values in life. Essentially it is telling us that something is wrong! By the time we are full to the brim with painful thoughts, experiences and memories – and still doing nothing at all to actually address our situation; our pain will typically peak. It is at this point that many people fully recognise what is going on – and understandably their reasoning goes something like ‘wow if this is what I have to deal with- I’d better do just about ANYTHING to take the edge off….’ And without further ado, your gambling is yet again going strong.
I am guessing that if you are reading this you fall into the category of people who have already ‘hoarded’ painful experiences and feelings inside of you, without managing them properly and without actually ever resolving any.
Having gambled for many years, your emotional management skills are probably rusty at best, and at worst they were never there to begin with and have to be learnt from scratch.
The good news is; This is all possible and it is never too late!!
So how can we learn to deal with pain when we have lifetime practice in avoiding it?
And learn how to regulate our feelings to avoid them regulating us.
Here are a few ideas to start with…
# Feel the pain; mindfully attend to the pain and breath through it (expansion) If you a brand new to this, try first to acknowledge the hurt as it comes up. Practice labelling the feeling, don’t hesitate to use an emotion chart online if you find that this gets confusing. It’s better to acknowledge and accept you are a novice at this, than trying to bully and shaming yourself into not learning about your own feelings. Try and locate where in your physical body you are feeling it and how it may change as you breathe through it. Sometimes this seemingly simple exercise can be really overwhelming. That is OK and a sign that you are doing something to engage with your feelings. Try and remind yourself that the natural flow of feelings is that they come and go. The shockwaves come first and as we learn to sit through them a bit they start transforming into smaller more subtle waves.
# Differentiate between feeling the pain and becoming your pain The difference might seem very subtle but is critically important in order not to experience the pain in twice the intensity. Essentially we have our original pain - that is often difficult enough to tolerate. The part that is ‘optional’ is our response to that pain. If we respond with compassion, kindness and acceptance towards ourselves; and allow the pain to heal without us interfering, it will pass. Wounds will heal even if this does not equate to forgetting or neglecting the things that we did wrong. If we come down hard on ourselves with anger, rumination, disappointment and tell ourselves ‘we should not feel like this’ or ‘this feeling is what I deserve for the bad I’ve done’ we magnify it and are likely to feel like helpless victims in the face of our strong feelings. A more relaxed approach will be more tolerable even if this means staying open to some very difficult waves of emotion from time to time.
# Self-compassion & Acceptance Addiction is no different from any other mental health problem in the sense that there often is an absence of self-love, self-compassion and acceptance for self at the heart of the suffering. Starting to change your attitude and relationship to yourself is long term work, but a job that you can start up immediately. Good areas to start with tends to be:
- Implanting an exercising routine
- Keeping in touch with friends/family and people who genuinely look out for you
- Seeking out and using support, talk about it, write about it or find a creative expression for it
- Taking care of yourself physically and emotionally by giving yourself kindness, acceptance, time and validation for what you are thinking and feeling
- Trying to disengage in ruminative, self-defeatist and victimised thinking which never leads to anything constructive. It can be important to recognise that you ruminate or mull over things in a failed attempt to resolve matters. If this is the case try and look for actual problem solving methods of addressing the problem.
- Be tolerant with yourself and your feelings. Try remind yourself that if you learn this skill now- difficult as it may feel- it will be there support you always.
# Talk to the pain, get to know it and then ‘Let it Burn’ (like in the song by Usher) try and befriend your emotional pain look for the messages it has for you. Is there anything that you can actually start actioning or any problems that you should aim at resolving? Are there any changes that you can do that will help you turn a corner with the pain you are suffering? We cannot undo the past but we can start doing better for ourselves going forward and when we do we will start feeling better. Hard as it is, try and identify the first small steps towards solving the problem. Taking small steps towards solving problems may feel tedious, but it is guaranteed to be a better method than swinging between total avoidance and overdrive, as tends to be the case for many people suffering with addictions.
**this technique is usually better used once the worst pain has settled down as your thinking during heightened states of emotion might be too illogical and ruminative to actually find any answers at all **
Good luck and Look after yourselves for now