Slow and steady wins the race…The fable of truth in Gambling addiction recovery

As many of you will know all too well- gambling is not an activity that fosters patience.  The more you gamble, the more you will feel the sense of desperation and urgency to win your losses back; and this prolonged chase is often one of the first sign of disordered gambling. Often time, and especially if you are a problem gambler, this also means gambling at a faster pace, with more sloppy bets and all while taking way more risk than you used to consider sensible when gambling was still just a fun pastime (if that was ever the case).

So this reliance on ‘instant gratification’; is a concept most of you will have heard about.  It refers to the inability to delay rewards and favour outcomes are available more immediately. Like the kids in the famous Marshmallow test- who rather than wait a little while (in one experiment only 15 minutes) to have twice the amount of Marshmallows would rather have just half if such could be enjoyed immediately.  The tendency to struggle with delayed gratification, as well as elevated levels of impulsivity in general, tend to be overrepresented amongst problem gamblers. 

Whether or not it was a trait you were aware of before the gambling, you can be pretty sure it has reared its ugly head during the priming achieved by the gambling!

(If you are keen to read some research on these areas you should check out the great research Pathways model by Alex Blaszcynski and Lisa Nower and also some of the research around delay discounting by  Nancy Petry.  Many gamblers suffer with high reward sensitivity, meaning you might need more and more stimulation to feel excited and content.   Impulsivity, short attention span and inability to await rewards are all common features of gambling addicted individuals. (You can read more about these in the Pathway model as well. )

Let’s then assume that you are a person who can identify with this trait- either because you had it before you started to gamble, you have become more impatient as you have gambled or a bit of both. 

Have you ever thought about how this trait (impatience) might impact on you and your life more generally- or, as discussed in this blog post, in relation to your recovery from gambling?

Below is a vignette about a problem gambler who used to come to see me in therapy – and who has given his permission to share this part of his story…(names and identifiable information has been changed)

 

Steven, 46, has been gambling for 22 years of his adult life- mainly online on the market but as of late also with spread betting, bets over the counter in the bookmaker and much to his dismay also on the FOBTs – even if he had always told himself those were a waste of time as they required no skill.

He had lost tens of thousands of pounds to gambling.  He has large debts to payday loan companies as well as to his elderly parents and he feels ashamed and disgusted with himself.  He is desperate to stop but can barely sit down in his first session of CBT before he starts twisting and turning asking ‘so how I am going to do this now? What’s the solution? Having just met with him I try to explain that we will be discussing solutions soon but that I need to learn a little bit about his patterns of gambling first.  He looks disappointed. ‘But I thought you were going to give me some answers’  

As usual in the first session I talk about strategies of how to get the gambling to stop – either by self-exclusion, by removing access to money – or maybe both. I am trying to build an understanding about his situation so that I will be able to better help him.   I can see him getting increasingly irritated and when I ask if he is ok he talks with a sense of irritation and impatience… ‘but I just thought you would be able to tell me how to actually stop- not just give me the glaringly obvious that is just going to ‘mask’ my addiction anyway!’  I point out that we are only 35 minutes into the first session and that treatment is not going to be an overnight event, and that he is going to be needing to do quite a bit of work himself in his recovery, although much of that is very rewarding. I also ask if he has already taken care of the money restrictions, in which case of course we should not waste any time. ‘No.., he says, ..but that is not recovery – I can do that anytime’. I need to know how to actually stop having any thoughts of gambling- and how to never go back to it again- so that’s why I am here’

 

Steven, who you would be pleased to hear has now not gambled for 8 months, with 2 minor lapses- ended up getting very tearful during the end of the first session. He explained that he had hoped there would be a ‘magic fix’ and that I would share it with him but that it was becoming increasingly clear that there wasn’t one, and that it had filled him with despair and anger when this started sinking in for him.  He also acknowledged his sense of utter desperation, and anticipation for the session had led him to develop a similar level impatience as he presents with when he gambles.           A habitual need for an immediate outcome, and a wish to have some of the control back that he has been lacking for so long in his life as a problem gambler. He wanted to finally be able to tell himself and his wife that he was ‘cured’. Evn if Steven admittedly came across as impatient, irritating and almost bordering on arrogant to begin with – it quickly became clear that this all had its origin in pain and a real sense of urgency to get into his recovery. Which is usually the case for problem gamblers presenting in therapy.

I am sharing this part of his story here to illustrate a very important point about what happens when that same reliance on instant gratification that acted as a driver to the gambling – is applied to your recovery.  It. Will. Not. Work.

Here is why:

When you approach gambling recovery with a need to get immediate results, you might quite enjoy the initial ‘high’ that you get from thinking of it as possible.  Sadly as reality of life and daily difficulties set in, you start feeling challenged again…

Ever had these thoughts..?

‘I am sooo motivated to stop- this time it’s different and it’s gonna happen’

 ‘I absolutely hate the gambling, no WAY am I ever touching that again- this time it will be different’

That’s how it sounds those first days/weeks.  Much like in a state of shock,  you might go through a little period of sweet denial, where the newfound release of tension from quitting gambling is paired with this complete lack of foresight into how things will actually feel once life continues to happen to you. The thought of the long term is not present at all. The expectation in this moment is that things are from this moment onward going to feel good, or at least pretty good. 

A bit like dieters – who are hoping that the weight should be starting to shed in front of their eyes the first week after the commitment to diet has been made .

The actual hardship of maintaining the diet in real life has rarely been well considered. 

There is a need for an instant reward for the great behaviours that are now being implemented. 

So how can this be prevented? Here are 3 reflective steps that you can take right away….

 

# Start training your ability to await rewards and think up new alternative rewards This is an excellent skills-inducing practice that will help you build up patience and self-discipline. You don’t have to think exclusively about the gambling when practicing layering your pains and pleasures of life in a smarter way. Try with other things too.  

Why not challenge yourself to do something useful before giving yourself a break and a cup of coffee? Or tell yourself you need to do some exercise before you watch TV?  Practice holding back some natural rewards that you might have already been given to yourself in the past without putting in the work to ‘deserve’ it. If you are like most people who have struggled with addiction a long time, you may find that there are not enough rewards unrelated to gambling in your life, in which case you will need to actively start thinking up a couple.  You can think about nice things you can do for yourself short-  medium – and long-term if you don’t gamble.  I always remind clients not to hold them back when the goals are then achieved. So many people feel undeserving of good things, particularly after years of gambling, but this is part of retraining your brain and it is important that you then get a real experience of joy from rewards that are not associated with gambling. This because the brain would have previously related to the gambling as a reward (whether your conscious experience of the gambling lately was enjoyable or not)

# Accept that recovery has nothing to do with speed, but everything to do with persistence and continued practice    This is something I constantly come back to with my clients.  Buying into thoughts such as ‘yes but I am still not where I once was emotionally’ or ‘even with all this great work I’ve done nobody trusts me anyway so what’s the point’ is an all too common formula for relapse. Try to take a different perspective and tell yourself ‘it is fine that people still have doubts, in fact it’s fine that I still have doubts- but I feel better having done good for myself and need to continue to make that decision for myself primarily every day’.   Allowing your impatience to guide you in these circumstances can all too easily cause set-backs in your recovery process. This is not a result of you doing anything wrong in your recovery. It is because your expectations of what recovery should look and feel like may be wrong.   Life as an addict is based on chasing highs in mood (or chasing the reduction or avoidance of a low in many circumstances). There is nothing inherently fulfilling in a life full of spikes of high feelings, when such are constantly followed by the feeling of crash landing.   Staying in recovery means you will need to adjust your template of what joy and happiness  should feel like.   Those feelings have very little to do with the often ‘out of touch’ states achieved by for example a gamble win, or the gratification and relief experienced when you realise you have the funds for yet another bet.  It is a far more wholesome, enduring state that feels connected to the actions and choices that you have chosen for yourself.   It is not out of your control and something to ‘place bets’ on – it is based on your sustained efforts to match your actions with your value system. A process that you can take charge of fully yourself.

# If you have a lapse – remember you are still overall heading in healthy direction. It is the direction that counts- not the speed in which you get there. Many people fail to realise that if you push on too hard too soon (like the hare in the fable) you will feel overwhelmed and at times even frightened by the sheer burden of all the things you are trying to tackle at the same time.  This will be counterproductive since it can far too easily lead you to stop making efforts longer term. It is no coincidence that ‘crash diets’ don’t work. They are never meant to last to begin with, but they trick people, through the process of instant gratification, to believe that change is possible. As well known a phenomenon that this present; most people I see in therapy who struggle with weight are still refusing to believe that the solution to weight loss lies in a change of lifestyle and habits – not in tormenting the body and mind through a the constant illusion of dropping a few pounds only to then return to a pattern of ‘rewards’ through more food.  If you do have a lapse – try and learn what you can from the lapse, but instead of ruminating at length; take stock on the things you learnt from the lapse, and try and fixate on the great direction you are moving in.

Be patient and remind yourself that there is no goal line as such, it is an ongoing journey without finite points and unlike in the fable not a race towards one particular goal line!

 

With love,

Annika  

 * Blaszczynski, A., & Nower, L. (2002). A pathways model of problem and pathological gambling. Addiction97(5), 487-499.

** Petry, N. M. (2001). Pathological gamblers, with and without substance abuse disorders, discount delayed rewards at high rates. Journal of abnormal psychology110(3), 482.