Gambling Urges and Cravings (3) What Can Help With Them?

In general terms, it is good for a recovering gambler to be as busy and occupied as is reasonably possible. This is not necessarily a lifetime strategy but certainly a most important contributor to overcoming the addiction in earlier days of abstinence. To plan activities, tasks, work and pastimes as regularly as possible is the gambler’s friend and this concentration on activity can assist in preventing gambling urges and cravings forming. What can the gambler do however, to deal with them if and when they arrive?

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(Image: Rasto Belan)

It has been an observation of mine from clients that the beginnings of gambling thoughts and urges are most often of a positive nature. Thoughts about opportunity and winning, coupled with additional thoughts about ways of spending those winnings characterise their first notion when the subject of gambling first pops into the head. One might say that without this feeling of positivity, the urges to gamble might be quite ineffectual and short-lived, for obvious reasons. These thoughts contain little balance or cost benefit thinking so an initial task might, after recognising and acknowledging the thoughts, be to challenge them. A train of thought might develop thus: ‘I have time and opportunity to gamble, money to do it with and that football match/horse race has very attractive odds. I could easily make money on them. With those winnings I could buy this or I could pay off that…’. At this point a challenge is required, ‘But what happened the last time I gambled? I lost money I couldn’t afford to lose and left myself short of funds all month. I felt depressed and anxious. I couldn’t talk to my partner and it affected our relationship’. Just an example and like many strategies practicing it makes it more effective.

Another main area I like to concentrate on is that of mental exercises to distract the gambler from gambling thoughts. Again, the initial acknowledgement and recognition that one is having those gambling thoughts is necessary and we can then turn to the distraction techniques. The central principle is that if there are thoughts about gambling in someone’s head then the most beneficial thing that can happen is simply to remove those thoughts as we cannot concentrate on two trains of thought simultaneously. Counting exercises are popular and effective, often the more menial the better. In my office I venture the idea of counting the many leaves on a pot plant, or looking through the window at a nearby building and counting windows, roof tiles or any other feature. It sounds unlikely but it is effective. Concentrate hard enough on the exercise and at this point those gambling thoughts will be extinct, they will not exist We have already established that for most gamblers, the urges are not long-lasting – possibly minutes typically – and so (thankfully!) these exercises need not last long at all until the gambling urges pass. A footnote might be that occasionally, gamblers believe their gambling urges last much longer that the minutes we talk of here. I would posit that much more likely is the fact that for those people, shorter urges are returning over and over again during the day – much like the waves described earlier

Of course, there are many other distraction strategies to choose from but an important factor in whatever one chooses is to have the strategy pre-planned and ready for any urges and cravings coming along. Know these environment, recognise where and when they most often happen and plan accordingly. I also like the idea of simply talking to others, be that face-to-face or over the telephone as conversations can be quickly engrossing. Other strategies people have mentioned to me include, taking a cycle ride, walking the dog, playing with their children and generally participating in hobbies and pastimes. I quite like to hear of physical activities that are in complete contrast to the gambling activity. All of these can assist a gambler in dealing effectively with gambling urges and cravings.

Gambling Urges and Cravings (2) Why Do They Happen?

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.

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(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,

Gambling Urges and Cravings (1) What are they?

Often, people speak to me in my capacity as a Gambling Practitioner about the subject of the strong urges and cravings they are experiencing whilst dealing with their addiction. Of course, such feelings can leave a person in recovery feeling vulnerable, not to say, anxious. It can also rob them of their confidence in their ability to overcome a gambling addiction and crucially become a part of the process of lapsing or relapsing. To that end, some psychoeducation around the subject of urges and cravings can be hugely beneficial.

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It’s important to understand that urges and cravings are actually a natural part of modifying (either abstaining from or decreasing) the gambling activity. Naturally, the more a person understands them, the more this will assist in overcoming them.
I often ask if clients understand the underlying cause of their urges to gamble but find that very few have an accurate conception of why this is. More often they will refer to certain personal triggers which whilst certainly a contributor are an accessory or facilitator to the underlying reason. Simply speaking, urges to gamble are caused by gambling itself. They are generally the result of reinforced gambling activity over a period of time and can endure for a further period after becoming abstinent from the gambling activity. It follows then that if a person has a history of heavy gambling in particular, it’s quite likely they may still experience strong urges after stopping.

What we see from the above is that people fall into a vicious cycle of gambling activity creating urges – urges creating gambling behaviour – gambling creating further urges and so on. It’s for another conversation but here is where an initial intervention and plan is put in place to stop gambling by controlling funds, access i.e. phone/betting shop and/or time and opportunity.

A useful way in which to conceptualise how a gambling urge works is to think of it being similar to a wave on a beach. The latter will begin as a mere ripple initially before building up to its strongest point prior to breaking and flowing away when it hits the beach. The comparison is of a gambling urge beginning as a small thought in someone’s mind, growing and overtaking other thoughts before finally ‘crashing’. The latter is a direct comparison with a wave breaking, where the urge reaches its culmination – either by gambling or by avoiding it.

We find that urges can last for seconds, minutes or for more protracted periods. This can depend on what you are doing (are you occupied with other thoughts especially). Keeping oneself occupied and busy really is the recovering gambler’s friend – preferably occupied with things you enjoy doing but not necessarily. Clearly, the thoughts about gambling then have less opportunity to occupy your thoughts and create those urges. Duration of thoughts can also be influenced by how a person is feeling and this comes into the area of triggers for the activity.

On Gambling Urges and Cravings

‘The thought of stopping frightens the **** out of me.’

The words above, read from an internet forum and regarding the troubled feelings experienced when considering stopping gambling very much resonate for many individuals I have worked with. There is an understandable fear of stopping felt by many. A significant section of clients may arrive for their initial session extremely tense and anxious (occasionally, some have even had a bet on the way there!) A part of that might be attributed to wondering what they’re going to face, will they be given a difficult time in therapy for instance etc. (absolutely the opposite is true) but much more it’s about finally facing up to a difficult problem.  This can easily be empathised with.

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People who gamble can be quite frightened of their urges and cravings, they can feel threatened by them or that the urges will always be in control of them. This is often far from the truth in actuality though. To begin with, for the majority of people the cravings last a relatively short period of time – maybe 1-5 minutes or even just seconds at a time. People sometimes feel it’s longer because they tend to arrive in waves throughout a period of time, especially during inactivity, coming and going at frequent intervals.

Some good news.

I often ask clients what they feel might create gambling urges. They may offer suggestions about certain things that trigger their urges but seldom do they identify the base reason for them. In essence, urges and cravings are simply caused by reinforced gambling behaviour – it’s the gambling itself that creates further urges to gamble and therefore a person can become trapped in a vicious cycle of gambling-urges-gambling.

An intervention is usually necessary initially in the form of a barrier or barriers to gambling. A common method is to put in place one or more of the following:

Money – (say by having your cash looked after for a period by another person

The means – (smartphone/ betting shop/casino etc.) Self-exclusion from the latter and blocking software for the former

Time/opportunity – (distracting oneself and keeping busy with other activities can help hugely).

When the vicious cycle of gambling behaviour and urges becomes halted by behavioural changes such as the above, the urges begin to decrease as the individual is not doing the very thing that creates the urges by abstaining. Statistically, this might be a decreasing pattern for say, a few months, people often tell me that the urges decrease quite drastically after about four weeks though whilst some experience very few cravings. It becomes easier and easier, there’s just a need to agree to one of those self-imposed interventions and life can quickly change for the better and the problem unravel.