Problem gamblers; how to manage boredom so that it does not manage you

Recently I have been trying to do more writing.  I really enjoy writing and feel like I have plenty of good things that I would like to communicate. Some of which; thinking particularly of my long experience of treating gambling addiction, could be of great use for many people around the world. Yet, while some weeks I find myself buzzing with inspiration and simply cannot wait for  that special moment when I will get to sit down, and write until my fingers light up, other weeks ( the last few one are prime examples) suddenly, and without any particular event that I can tie to it, I will catch myself switching from task to task, topic to topic, giving myself various excuses for why it would be better to move on to that next thing. ‘Maybe I should just sort out a wardrobe instead’ 'maybe I should just transfer those pictures from the camera over to the laptop today'

The boredom got me again!  And suddenly all I do is procrastinate and make excuses for why I dont have time to write.

Why doesn’t that inspired state never last?       Well.. it just doesn’t. Any writer will tell you. Any person who is self-employed will tell you. Or actually anybody who is fully reliant on themselves to induce discipline on a daily basis will tell you  - human beings do not wake up every day and feel exactly the same way.  

Our daily feeling should not be what determines if we do something constructive or not!

The sooner we come to accept that our focus, concentration and productivity is less about ‘feeling’ a certain way and more about structure and persistence- the sooner we can break out of certain patterns of behaviours.

Focus, concentration and productivity really come about when we do things in certain ways and better yet; When we are focused we are not bored!

So what is boredom really and why should I care?

Boredom is a state that all human beings suffer in life. Some suffer a lot, others a lot less.  An interesting exercise I have done for years now in therapy, is to ask people to describe their boredom to me. I have found over the years that in spite of boredom being a state of mind that is highly triggering of addictions and other unhelpful distractions – it is actually a fairly diffuse and non-threatening feeling when you look at it from some distance.    

Some common descriptions include:

  • Lacking in engagement

  • Demotivated

  • Apathy

  • Restless and jittery

  • Searching for just about anything else to focus on

  • Fleeting attention

  • Low in mood

  • Feeling under-stimulated but with the feeling that nothing is stimulating even when trying

Boredom amongst people with gambling problem, or other addictions, is a HUGE issue. I have mentioned in a previous blog post that proneness to boredom tends to be an underlying driver of gambling addiction (as commonly seen in individuals with ADHD or ADD) and is also a state that tends to get aggravated by persistent involvement in gambling. When people gambler there is a high reliance on instant gratification often becomes a way of life for problem gamblers. Not the only driver of course, but one of them.

Research into the topic of boredom has suggested that boredom is a lack of paying attention- basivally the opposite of mindful awareness. . Despite being a Psychologist working with addictions, I have to admit finding this out was actually a bit of an eye-opener. I simply never saw it in that way- but of course it is absolutely true.  Boredom has little to do with what stimulations are on offer, but everything to do with how we engage with the stimulations available to us. If anything, more choice is likely going to lead to more boredom!

So how does boredom lead to gambling?  

When you feel bored there is a sense that nothing you were to embark on will feel fun anyway- except sometimes that ONE thing….. which often is a high-dopamine-inducing activity. Not seldom one that is no good for you.   Unfortunately being bored and not being aware of it means we are ever so likely to resort to an addictive behaviour simply because we are driven to obtain a dose of dopamine to spark some life into ourselves during a dull time.

This behaviour will indeed be ‘helpful’, or rather it will be satisifying, in the short term by removing the sense of boredom but will typically lead to even more desperate mood states longer term such as low mood, despair and hopelessless. All depending on how destructive the behaviour you resorted to in order to fill the void.

So how can we learn to better manage boredom in an era when this is no longer part of a childhood skills ‘curriculum’?

If you are part of the generation where everything is available instantly within the click of a button chances are that you have not cultivated your ability to be bored very well.  Even for the older generations there are naturally individual differences in how tolerant people are towards this state, and many of us have also evolved into becoming equally reliant on quick and instant gratification much due to the ever-developing technology.

For addicted people – existing with boredom is ALWAYS tricky and will typically require direct training. As I always say to my clients; this is an issue that can be tackled from two ends.  From one end- you can create a structure in your life that leaves less room for boredom to emerge.

On the other end you need to also learn how to manage the feeling if/when it turns up, because even with the best of efforts every person will be bored sometimes. Living life aiming at avoiding boredom by busying yourself might end up with you actually missing out of the bits of life that are truly valuable and fulfilling. We feel good when we engage deeply, as opposed to superficially, with situations and people.

Scheduling, structure, prioritising and rewards:

  • Scheduling:  Many gamblers I meet with have never owned a watch and has poor organisational skills. Being used to living a life ‘of the moment’ does not incorporate any level of planning for even the next couple of hours.  Please mind that this is not true for all problem gamblers, but definitely a defining trait of some. Trying to conquer an addiction does require a structure, or else you will be relying on the feeling of the moment to decide what to get up to. This may work on occasions but will most definitely not work during times of being triggered. You are also far more likely to be triggered if there is nothing else planned.   

  • Heard the saying ‘the idle mind is the devil's playground’  I have had entire group sessions on the topic of this quote- that is how true I find it to be for people struggling with addiction.

Whilst I am not proposing operating with chronic busyness or a life of chronic avoidance, it is key to feel…

a) that you have a scheduled plan for the day; things to do and places to go. This requires you to keep a certain level of focus, which automatically creates new mental habits meaning:less time to operate in your old ones. Try and imagine the contrast between the following two scenarios- in the first scenario you wake up in the morning without any plan at all. You check in and see how you feel and what you would like to get up to that day. Since you feel quite sluggish actually - you decide to head back to bed and get up a bit later at which point you feel both hungry, a bit like a ‘loser’ and still without a plan. You can see how a bit of gambling could easily become a go to behaviour in this scenario.   The alternative scenario is that you wake up, still feeling just as sluggish but realise that you need to be at a meeting at work at 9.30 and then lunch with a friend later on. Whilst you may not feel motivated at the time the alarm bells goes off, you are now following through on a commitment rather than going with the feeling. This will always generate better results in addiction recovery, and dare I say- in life in general.

b) that you have something decent to look forward to every day or at least every couple of days. If not; your brain will revert back to  auto-piloted reward-seeking which in your case might mean gambling or other unhelpful behaviours. The brain wants to have a little fun here and there, and better provide that fun in a guilt-free, productive form rather than waiting for the brain to seek out that stimulation in all the wrong places.

c) prioritising I have recently written a blog-post on which you can find here. This portion relates partly to the need to prioritise recovery-related activities as if they actually matter. Learning how to prioritise is also a crucial activity that helps you create new useful routines and habit; all of which are going to need to come in and take over from your old ones.  as in the previous paragraph, prioritising is an activity done in advance. Waiting for our feelings to show up as motivators is rarely a reliable method and can at worst risk frequent spiralling away from what would otherwise have been helpful habits. Most things that are helpful long term tend to create a sense of strain, effort and reluctance short term. In order to avoid falling at every hurdle, plans and prioritising needs to be the new modus operande if things are actually going to get done in the way you want them to.

Habit:  Habit deserves it’s own blog post. Believe me one will come soon. In the meantime, the greatness of habits have been written about by many fantastic authors, however usually not in relation to gambling addiction particularly. If we strip away all the specifics of the gambling addiction, remember that gambling is also a deeply ingrained habitual behaviour.  In the interest of not creating a book-sized section, I will not go into what makes up a habit at this point. The message for now is simply; create some new alterntive habits. When we have habits, there is a greater likelihood that behaviours will happen. Things that we have trained our brain to do by the force of frequent repetition, will start happening almost on auto-pilot.  Gambling may still present one of your most auto-piloted habits, however as long as you live you can still chose to create new ones that can out-power the old ones. This is the power of our brain plasticiy. We can always adapt and change our ways if we wish to.

#Variety to prevent habituation and boredom

Our brains respond nicely to novel stimuli, often contributing to a feeling of excitement, curiosity and high motivation.  Over time, our brains will stop ‘firing up’ in the same way unless the stimuli keeps changing. This is the very psychology behind gambling, and part of the reason why you might right now be reading this article. Gambling never gets boring to the brain since due to the intermittent reinforcements delivered, and the fact that habituation brings you to increase your stakes to create a new more exciting situation that will provide the same high you were initially getting.  A process more commonly known as tolerance. When you are trying to break away from an addiction the brain is already having a tough time readjusting to the seeming lack of stimulation. If this is aggravated by a dull, never-changing routine you can be pretty certain that thoughts will arrive soon enough; reminding you that the gambling after all was not so terrible. Be one step ahead and create a stimulating, rewarding routine that allows for less boredom.

# Befriending your boredom

Ok, this does sound a bit cliché and overly optimistic. Boredom however, is not your enemy- in fact it can be a very creative force if you allow it to be. Think about when you were a kid- when did you come up with the wildest, craziest ideas of random play? When you were in school busy or when you were bored at home? The trouble with boredom is our response to it- just like with any other feeling. One of the factors that makes boredom a difficult feeling to stay present with is that when it strikes, we tend to be bombarded with urges trying to lure us into distractions of various kinds. If we are not very careful, these distractions will, in the moment that they pop-up in our head, seem perfectly reasonable to engage with. Sitting with boredom is an activity that I recommend you learn gradually, starting with bite-size degrees of itchiness and building up from there. So would one do this?

If you are bored now, perfect- you can start right away.  If you do not have access to the feeling right at this moment then think about last time when you felt bored, restless and uneasy- and yet nothing appeared to stimulate you. Remember how that feeling manifests in the body…where could you feel it?  Was it terrible or just a bit uneasy? If it was painful and suffocating- do you think you could breath through it? Try to inhale and focus on the breath, then exhale and think about your breath a bit more. In this moment that is all you need to think about – your breath. So easy – yet so hard. Pay extra attention to the movement of the chest, the feeling in your lungs and how good it feels when the air leaves your lungs for another breath to be taken in. Watch the feeling weaken as you are continuing to breath. Is it really so bad? Can you move through it? Could you still decide on doing something that you usually want to do, or something that needs doing – even if the feeling is with you?       You will find that you can. Just start it up – all you need to do is start.

If you feel like it you may now transfer your attention to something else- but try to keep it there. Whatever you are trying to pay attention to, try to allow for only this one thing to be your focus for a little while.   

I hope this little meditation helped you a bit.  It will teach you a few things right at the same time  

  1. how to manage your feelings better

  2. that you are ultimately in charge over your feeling and not the other way around

  3. to practice more mindful attention. Training our attention, be it through meditation, mindfulness or a more scientific and technical attention training, helps our ability to focus and helps us take charge of how we allocate attentional resources. This is a helpful skill to have in many walks of life and will not be wasted!

Good luck!