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The importance of problem gamblers maintaining abstinence

At certain points along the recovery journey, it is possible to forget how desperate and lonely one’s problem gambling behaviour actually was. After a spell of abstinence, it may be that amnesia sets in about how bad the problem had become.

A wishful fantasy can be constructed that the next time will be different and that future gambling can be made to pay. Self-control and self-disciple, as if by magic, can be restored and this newfound way of operating can allow a period of successful gambling.

The fantasy may be nurtured whereby a successful strategy of staking is envisaged that avoids self-defeating actions such as chasing losses and entering into reckless trades.

What is Passive Gambling?

Passive gambling could be seen as mental processes that fantasise about outcomes or involve some other form of speculation about making life decisions. Problem gamblers may do this even during periods of abstinence.

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What is Active Gambling?

Active gambling is when the money is put down on the outcome of an event or game.  Active gambling for ex-problem gamblers almost always leads back to the old ways of addictive patterns. It is usually the case that a strict abstinence programme needs to be rigorously maintained in order to stay on a recovery path and to steer clear of gambling addiction.

A recovery journey should have some way of being reminded of how unmanageable life had become. For some, it can be useful to attend 12 step meetings such as Gamblers Anonymous.

For others, it can be beneficial to stay in touch with their addiction treatment services, whether that is by continuing to see a therapist or by attending group therapy sessions at a clinic or rehab.

This can help to guard against complacency that can be counter-productive when seeking to maintain abstinence from gambling.

Once a problem gambler starts to gamble again the pain of losing can reacquaint them with old feelings of loss, depression and anxiety. Sooner or later there is a reengagement with the old familiar feelings of self-loathing, guilt, remorse, regret, fear and self-hatred.  That excruciating emotional merry-go-round of impending losses and near-miss wins can be exhausting.

An obsession to recover loses almost inevitably takes over and previous abstinence periods can count for little. No matter how long someone has refrained from gambling there are usually resurgent internal chaos and an accompanying impatience with life.

Gambling begins to take priority over everything else. Things on to-do lists get left and remain incomplete and there is little or no available time to engage with friends and family. Daily chores become a source of huge irritation. This is when problem gamblers talk about wanting to be in the so-called permanent ‘zone of gambling’ where the main priority is to ensure that gambling funds are not depleted.

The importance of knowing personal triggers

A lot of addiction can be restricted by limiting opportunity. Ex problem gamblers, for example, can be particularly challenged by the sudden availability of funds or by having lots of spare time to indulge in their old habit. No matter how long someone has stopped there might still be subtle yet toxic triggers to gamble again.

It is important to be aware of your own personal triggers in order to maintain personal abstinence from problem gambling.

These triggers may be seemingly obvious such as experiencing periods of boredom or special sporting events looming on the calendar. Other triggers might be more subtle such as when a partner suddenly has to leave town for work or to attend to family commitments elsewhere.

Having spare time can suddenly create obsessive thoughts and fantasies that this time it will be different and the big win is just around the corner. Other triggers can be less subtle such as personal or family anniversaries that have the potential to create unconscious impulses to escape difficult states of mind.

There might also be an underlying desire to sabotage the solid foundations of one’s life by a period of exhilarating gambling. Other possible triggers could include dates or times of the year which might also present unconscious fears about economic viability and well-being.

Know your safeguards

It is important to put in place safeguards to protect against sudden and impulsive desires to gamble.

Self-exclusion from gambling operators could be explored as well as investigating how gambling blocking software could be utilised in order to maintain abstinence from online gambling. You could restrict your bank cards from being used for gambling. Perhaps a loved one could control your access to your funds.

These measures might not represent a total guard against danger. However, the greater amount of time that you need to undertake to find and gather funds for gambling the less likely it is that you will act on impulse.

Problem gambling can be an impulse control disorder and it is vital that safeguards are in place to protect against potentially reckless and spur of the moment actions.

Treatment options

Gambling addiction can be seen as a slavish compulsion to pleasure and an obsessive and compulsive activity in search of emotional satisfaction, comfort and security. The repetitive behaviour is seeking to ‘fix’ feelings rather than allowing the ‘feeling of feelings’.

An abstinence-based treatment programme is nearly always the most effective treatment option for problem gamblers. Once stopped the key is to engage with a way of living that continually offers support for ongoing emotional stress.

The tools and techniques contained within Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be useful in helping to bring insight into the problem behaviour, investigating sources of discomfort as well as assessing risk and reward.

Gambling addiction can also be a way of self-medicating to help deal with underlying emotional issues such as bereavement, loss, sadness, trauma and anxiety.

The process of recovery can begin once a problem gambler accepts that they have lost control and are prepared to work towards a period of abstinence.

Letting go of past losses can be painful but can ultimately bring about a form of healing that can facilitate a greater emphasis on the here and now.

An effective relapse prevention strategy, maintained on a daily basis, can help engender more enthusiasm for re-engaging with life in a more meaningful manner.

About Author

Nicholas Conn

Nicholas Conn

Nicholas Conn is a leading industry addiction expert who runs the UK’s largest addiction advisory service and is regularly featured in the national press, radio and TV. He is the founder and CEO of a drug and alcohol rehab center called Help4addiction, which was founded in 2015. He has been clean himself since 2009 and has worked in the Addiction and Rehab Industry for over a decade. Nick is dedicated to helping others recover and get treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. In 2013, he released a book ‘The Thin White’ line that is available on Amazon.

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