Gambling triggers, broadly speaking, can be placed in two categories – external and internal. External triggers are arguably easier to identify and are exemplified by such as physically passing betting shops or casinos, encountering gambling advertising on the TV or receiving communications electronically from gambling companies, i.e. emails or texts offering ‘free spins’ and other offers. We can observe that external triggers to gamble are from things the stimuli we see or hear from outside of ourselves and induce us to gamble. In addition, we can think here of the way that people, places, situations and times of day can offer external triggers. People might often relate the influence of other people as confined to sharing time with others who gamble but other people who create certain moods in a person are less identified but can be highly relevant, as will be explained. Places and situations can perhaps be more easily recognised, examples being at home alone, with an opportunity to gamble online or being in a situation of needing money for whatever reason and gambling to acquire it. Times of day might follow a pattern of opportunities around work, home and social life. For the purposes of this discussion however, I am more interested in the subject of the other category, that of internal triggers.
(Image: Jeff Prieb)
We can relate internal triggers to how you are feeling and the thoughts you are experiencing – your mood patterns. A classic example might be of a person experiencing low moods, feeling upset or depressed and this creating gambling activity as an ‘escape’ from those moods – classic escapism. This can be easily compared with other addictions and their escapism factor. Perhaps a most obvious example might be that of alcohol, where someone might indulge in ‘drowning their sorrows’ to use a well-worn phrase. The alcohol might work well temporarily in masking or ‘fixing’ those unwanted feelings for a time at least. A problem being that after the return to sobriety the cause of the low mood may still exist (and be exacerbated by a hangover!) The same is very much true of gambling. Individuals can ‘lose’ themselves in the gambling activity which offers them distraction from whatever is creating their low moods. This I feel, is especially true for those indulging in gambling which requires frequent use and response such as online games or fixed-odds-betting terminals (FOBTs) in betting shops or fruit/slot machines in arcades or other environments.
Another mood type which can influence and induce betting can be boredom. Being under-occupied, living a generally humdrum lifestyle or lacking excitement or interest can lead to the need to chase a ‘buzz’ or a pattern of gambling behaviour which provides thrills – even if only in a gambler’s addiction. Other moods might be anger, frustration, loneliness or numerous others. It’s a useful exercise to question whether any of these moods are applicable to oneself. It may well be key to understanding the prime driver for the behaviour and therefore beginning to work on helpful changes.
As an aside, the subject of ‘addictive personality’ can be interwoven with this subject. Like many, I do not subscribe to such a concept and there is much evidence against it. Suffice to say, people can reach out to various maladaptive coping strategies such as alcohol, drugs or gambling due to the same basic underlying problems in their life. It’s important to remember that people have been trying to ‘fix’ their feelings since biblical times and this provides a good explanation for the above behaviour.
We know that cravings only lose their power if they are not reinforced by further episodes of gambling. This for me is a pivotal consideration in stopping urges and therefore stopping gambling happening. So how long might this desirable state of affairs take to come about – that of the urges declining to the point of extinction? Statistics – which may well not be the most useful resource when thinking about this subject would indicate that a majority of ex-gamblers’ urges and cravings disappear in around 6-12 months. This can be a little disheartening and worrying for people trying to stop but really shouldn’t be. It does not mean there is a likelihood of 6-12 months of purgatory, being deeply troubled by these urges, for after a much shorter period they can be rendered into mere feeble thoughts than can be easily batted away. The length of time that people experience gambling urges is highly variable due to numerous factors such as the level of the former gambling habit, personality traits and circumstances but a pattern emerges indicating that often, urges decrease quite quickly to the point of being much less troublesome after say, a month of abstinence. Some people don’t even experience urges at all it should be recorded. We therefore can see an encouraging pattern for the recovering gambler of the urges decreasing in both frequency and intensity to the point of extinction. The task becomes ‘easier’ at the days, weeks and months of abstinence draw on.
I sometimes use a nice analogy for urges and cravings and that is of a stray cat. If a stray came to your door and you feed it, what would most likely happen? Yes, it will return for another feed. Gambling urges and cravings work in much the same way. If you feed them by gambling they will certainly return.
In summary, one of the reasons it is often more difficult to decrease gambling levels as opposed to stopping it completely is because the addiction continues to be ‘fed’, albeit on a decreased scale, thus creating urges to gamble further. The cycle can then occur of gradually heavier gambling and a return to the various issues this creates. For people who have never been what we might term as a problem gambler gambling more casually can hold together, it is however, most problematic for a person recovering from problem gambling and not advisable.
Finally, urges can be quite intense in the early stages of stopping and can endure for a period of time after the gambling stops so be prepared to accept them as part of the change process,