4 common pitfalls of gambling recovery; and how to avoid them..

Gambling addiction is a tough addiction to conquer- don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Whilst some of the behavioural addictions sometimes are seen as ‘less of an addiction’ than those to drugs and alcohol, for those who suffer, and also for those who are watching the suffering individual closely such as family, friends or therapists; there should be little doubt that this addiction is as terrible as any other. One aspect that may even make it worse is the common belief out there that it should be easier to overcome it if the person just wants to, they should just quit right?   Again, this type of belief overlooks the entire psychology of addiction and still adheres to the assumption that the behaviour is still a problem of willpower. I will spend no more time explaining why this is not true; simply because any of you who suffer know this already.  

Instead I will move on to talk about some of the many pitfalls in recovery that I often encounter amongst my clients. Knowing where things could go wrong can be a powerful deterrent for them actually going wrong.  The ideal sequence of events following a relapse involves a) analysing the relapse and the triggers that lead you to gamble b) checking where you could have prevented it from occurring c) ensuring that you put in place any possible barriers and changes that can prevent a repeat of the relapse.  

Even with the very best off efforts, relapses may still occur. This does not mean you are back from square one, and it also does not mean what you have done so far is in vain. Relapses are common and a part of recovery. Unfortunately, they can be incredibly painful and cause a lot of damage.   In trying to make you even more aware of the common pitfalls I am here sharing a small list of common pitfalls that you can make sure you take steps to avoid.


# 1. Having too much unstructured time on your hands

This one is a major issue. There may times in your life when it is nice to ‘go with the flow’;  but I promise you that time is not in the early day of trying to stop gambling.  For most ex-gamblers, leaving it to chance with activity levels is never really a good idea. Structure and planning are important parts of recovery.  Let’s first check what I mean by structure. For many people planning and organising their time gets equated with a boring, rigid routine that will keep them from feeling free and happy. I just wanted to make it clear that a routine can be the complete opposite to that.

·       A routine can be consisting of any things that you have chosen for yourself. Work, family, hobbies, interests, friends, sports, arts. If you find it hard to come up with stuff for the routine a good starting point would be to allocate time to figure out and try new things

·       A routine can be flexible and does not have to be set in stone

·       A routine will create a sense of being accomplished, and also enable you to plan a day that consist of activities other than gambling

Not having a routine will create an immediate vulnerability by allowing your daily level of motivation to determine whether or not you engage in life. Having activities, work and commitments that we show up for if we feel like it or not is a critical part of creating stability in your recovery.



# 2. Stopping the behaviour but maintain all the mental thinking habits

For a problem gambler, the time actually dedicated to gambling goes far beyond the time spent in the bookmaker shop or online on the actual betting site.  Researching odds, checking stats, exploring anything from horse form to shares online and scheming on how to get the money and the opportunity to gamble next at the point where both you and people around you have already become aware you should not be engaging with gambling.   This time counts too.  Hopefully you are now finding yourself at the point with your awareness, where you realise that gambling has to stop.  If so, let’s still not forget that many people can change behaviours but still not change anything else and still end up feeling like they are stuck psychologically.  

Perhaps you or someone you know has at some point experienced a break-up from someone?  Deciding not to see someone and then doing nothing differently in your life, and there is a great risk that your mental engagement with the relationship will just continue. You might spend your time dwelling on them and the relationship, wondering what you could have done instead, talking about them with friends and finally also dream. Your brain gets so in the habit of thinking about them every minute that it sort of believes that it is what it is meant to be doing.  This process typically continues until there is some new input. Gambling works in similar ways, and if anything causes even more obsessional thinking than relationships due to the immense power that it has on the addicted brain. Trying to disrupt obsessional thoughts, urges and ruminations is harder than it might sound. Part of the trick here is about becoming aware of your thinking traps before they have ‘consumed you’. Whenever you notice your mind drifting off to the theme of gambling or anything relating to it ; try to bring yourself back to the present moment. Prompt this further by shifting your attention to things that are actually happening. As long as we opt to live in a fantasy instead of the real world, we will find that nothing much improves in our life.  Shifting your mental energy on to new forms of thinking  such as problem solving, planning, creative thinking etc is a very key part of recovery and one that will definitely need both training and prompting in the early days to avoid falling back into habit mode.

# 3. Still not applying any barriers to control money  

 I have done an entire post on this topic before and will only repeat the bottom line which is ….. This is the single most important intervention you can do for yourself, and an absolute must if you have indeed acknowledged that you are suffering with gambling addiction. The hallmark of an addiction is the loss of control; or else it would be still within your willpower to stop gambling. Don’t dismiss this fact when you try to recover. Willpower alone is not going to cut it as a way through recovery, you need additional barriers!  To read the post on this topic check it out here

# 4. ‘Nostalgia tripping’   

Nostalgia trips can be a bitter-sweet experience. You might recognise the idea of feeling ‘so over the gambling’ but then suddenly a literal tsunami wave of fond feelings, intoxicating fantasies and (for that moment) seemingly ‘logical’ ideas of your chances of being able to control it better now all come rushing in again. Much like after a breakup where an ex might come back in mind to ‘bait’ you into sending texts you will later regret. With gambling there can be a lot at stake so you would want to be careful to act while in the state of fantasy! When you get aware of the returning feelings, try and label the experience to yourself instead. Talk yourself through the entire experience bit by bit.  Example:

‘I feel a contraction in my brain, I feel like I am urging, I feel that my heart is beating faster and my mind is telling me I can win again…’

This is a brilliant way of achieving a greater sense of detachment to your experience and when you get good at it, this mindful state will help you realise that you still have control over your behaviour; even when it does not feel like you do.

# Taking away the gambling, but forgetting to put other things in place…  This one is an easy trap to fall into. It would seem intuitive to assume that once the gambling is gone, life should sort of automatically return to normal. Believing this however becomes a quick route to disappointment in gambling addiction recovery. In many ways, things almost need to happen the other way around. Essentially – the gambling will not cease being a temptation until there are other things there taking over in the places of your life where it previously used to dominate.       Don’t get me wrong; stopping gambling is a big deal. But in itself, having stopped does not bring long term satisfaction.  Enriching your life on the other hand will- it is just that it takes planning, initiative and sustained effort to rebuild a life that makes sense. On the bright side; all the energy that was previously spent on the gambling is now available again. However,…if you don’t put it to good use that excess energy might mislead you right back to the gambling.   Try to set some new goals, identify some new activities and interests and connect with some old friends or alternatively start laying plans for how to meet new people.  All the action steps at this point can take time –there is no need to replicate that rushed frenzy with which you used to operate when still gambling. All we are looking for here is a healthy direction.


I have listed here some of the really common pitfalls that I come across in therapy with my gambling addicted clients.  There are many more as well, particularly relating to longer term recovery where life might through difficult challenges and tricky situations at you at a time when you are still lacking the emotional coping skills to deal with it. I will revisit some of these in a later post.


For now, I wish you the best of luck X