Do you gamble more than you can afford, even to the point where it destroys your finances or relationship or both? Do you find yourself out of control when faced with gambling opportunities? Have you tried to stop, but can’t? Do you need to increase your gambling level to get the same high that you used to get?
What is a gambling addiction?
An addiction to gambling is a behaviour where you find it difficult to pass by that game of chance. When you gamble, you find it difficult, even impossible, to stop. You often gamble until have nothing left to gamble. A gambler will often spend their life savings, and that of their partner, and go into deep debt.
The life of a gambler is distressing, not only to them but also to their loved ones.
When you gamble, it’s easy to think that you are searching for the next win, and that’s what keeps you gambling. It certainly feels that way. But what happens in your brain is somewhat more complex than that.
Gambling and your brain
I’ve already written about addictions in general. When you find yourself drawn to gambling, your brain produces chemicals (such as dopamine) in anticipation of the gamble. Curiously, when you start to gamble, whether you win or lose isn’t the main point, because you get a high of anticipation each time you place your bet. Every gain reinforces the compulsion to place the next bet… and every loss reinforces the feeling that you get when you place the next bet!
It’s not about winning, despite feeling that it is. Think about it — how many times have you won and yet continued to gamble, eventually losing every penny that you gained?
Gambling machines, internet sites, racecourses, and casinos all play to this. That’s why they feature glitzy colours, moving lights, stimulating noises, and more. When I was younger, before the days of gambling machines and even the internet, I used to be fascinated with casinos — their decor, the fake feelings of poshness and grandeur, the appearance of exclusivity…
A friend of mine once remarked, “When you scrape off all the fake glitter on the surface, you see all the fake glitter underneath.”
Think about James Bond. When he enters a casino, all of the associations are there: the black-and-white jacket-and-bowtie, the subdued talking, the wealth and glamour. Naturally, he places a daring bet and wins!
In real life, of course, Bond wouldn’t win. He would lose. Well, nearly always. Because the casino always wins. The odds have been carefully and deliberately calculated that way. If you enter a casino with the expectation of winning, you are gambling for entirely the wrong reason.
If a gambling addiction really were about winning, you wouldn’t gamble — because gambling is clearly, openly and obviously designed to make you lose in the long term (usually the medium term, too). It’s not a secret! Logic simply wouldn’t let you gamble, because gambling is not about winning. It’s about playing, getting a dopamine high each time you place the bet, regardless of whether you win or lose.
What causes a gambling addiction?
This question can be answered on different levels. At its base, gambling does two important things:
- It numbs your feelings, letting your forget your problems for a short while, although ironically it makes your problems worse.
- With each bet, you get a blast of a feel-good feeling. Because your body doesn’t understand the difference between intelligent and harmful behaviour, you are temporarily fooled into accepting these feelings as the “right” thing to do.
To put things in a simple way, you are gambling because it gives you the same rush as you would get if you were to get up, find your passion, and focus on a powerful goal.
Here’s another thing.
Your body evolved to use the least possible energy, because in primitive times, food was scarce. Your brain and body instinctively look for the easiest way to do something. If you have the choice of sitting or running, your body will choose sitting if it believes that the result will be the same.
Well, it takes much less energy to sit or stand around mindlessly giving your hard-earned money to the owner of the casino, racecourse or wherever you gamble than it is to act powerfully and in the best interests of you and everyone around you.
The first takes no effort, and the second takes plenty of effort, and yet, to your brain, they give the same rush. So, your body thinks, why not do the first?
It is not uncommon to find someone with a gambling addiction who also has other addictive behaviours, such as cocaine, alcohol, or something else. These behaviours have the same underlying cause as the gambling: numbing yourself and feeling good for a short while.
What can I do about my gambling addiction?
The very first thing is purely practical. Depending on where you live, find out how you can prevent yourself from spending money on gambling. Casinos might offer a service where they will (politely) bar you from entering. Your credit card supplier might allow you to ban all “adult” services (gambling, porn sites, etc.). If you have a supportive and understanding partner, give them your credit cards so that you won’t be able to gamble when you are tempted.
If you gamble online, install site blockers that prevent you from accessing adult sites. Do this on your phone, laptop, desktop. Give the password to a trusted friend or partner and tell them not to give it back to to you without excellent reason.
Of course, you will be able to figure out ways around the blocks, and given enough time, that’s exactly what you will do — that’s what addiction does! This is why the second step is the most important.
As I already described above and in my previous article about addictions, the primary driver of gambling is not the gambling itself. Gambling is not the problem, per se; it is a symptom of a deeper problem.
People don’t hurt themselves or others without reason, and gambling addictively is a massive hurt. They gamble obsessively because they are unable to deal with their life’s problems in a mature and constructive way.
That is why…
… Therapy is the answer
As you go through therapy, the first objective is to eliminate the impulse to gamble. However, if you do nothing else about it, you could well find that later you revert to gambling or to some other addictive behaviour.
When doing therapy, you are likely to find that it’s like peeling layers off an onion. You resolve one problem (gambling), to expose an underlying problem. Solve that, and there’s something underneath. This is normal.
In rare cases, someone will stop their gambling problem, and that alone inspires them to grasp their life and shoot forward in a way that gives them meaning and purpose. The underlying problems become minimised by themselves, as the ex-gambler discovers that those old gambling highs pale into insignificance compared with living a full and exciting life.
Replace gambling with healthy passion
Usually, though, clearing the problems and replacing them with passion, enthusiasm, excitement and powerful goals takes more work. Not only was the addiction a behaviour, but also it threaded itself into you, in a way that you feel is part of you. It has become part of your identity. Stopping the addiction can feel as though you are losing a part of yourself.
Many people discover that their addiction rests on past trauma. If this is true for you, you might have to face the fact that you will have to deal with the trauma. While this is not always necessary, usually it is. There are different types of therapy to handle this; some can be distressing, and others can let you “clear” the trauma using, well, non-traumatic techniques.
The process of clearing old ills and learning constructive and healthy ways to deal with your emotional problems, as hidden as they might be, opens a space where you can find a new passion for life, and a new set of worthwhile goals.
When you do this — resolve your problems — you replace gambling’s numbing and false highs with a new ability to feel life and experience real highs. You might lose a destructive part of your past, but you gain a whole new experience and joy.
It is truly worth the time and effort.