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Gambling Your Life Away: How to Overcome Issues with Excessive Gambling
Paul Hradek is a QCH-qualified therapist and coach. He works with Origami Cognitive Hypnotherapy, Coaching and Consultancy Services, both online and in person (Berkshire, UK).
Paul works with a wide range of issues and particularly enjoys working with clients experiencing low confidence, issues with procrastination and fear of presenting.
Gambling Your Life Away: How to Overcome Issues with Excessive Gambling
If you look up the definition of gambling, you will find something similar to:
- Taking risky action in the hope of a desired result.
- Playing games of chance for money; betting.
We can all, undoubtedly, think of times we have taken some sort of risk in the hope of achieving a positive outcome – perhaps purchasing shares in a small company you think will make it big, or speculating on one of the many cryptocurrency coins out there. When we put money into a pension scheme, we are essentially taking a ‘low risk’ gamble that the investment value will rise sufficiently to keep us comfortable in retirement.
Here, however, I want to talk to you about the second type of gambling; playing games of chance for money. Like any ‘vice’ there is a wide spectrum of usage and there are people who never ‘dabble’. Some people are satisfied with putting £1 on a weekly lottery ticket, while at the other end of the spectrum, gambling becomes a high stakes, all-consuming ‘pastime’ that gradually eats up more and more (or even, more than they have coming in) of their income and increasingly dominates their thoughts, actions and lives.
What is a ‘healthy’ amount of gambling then? This all depends on the individual. It is less about how much a person spends (income dependent) and more about the impact it is having on other areas of their life, relationships, health and mental well-being.
There are many reasons why a person gambles, here are a few:
- The adrenaline ‘hit’ of winning money.
- Escape from worries or stress in other areas of their life.
- The excitement a ‘wager’ can bring to watching a live sporting event.
- Validation (from themselves, or others) about their ability to predict the outcome of an event.
So how do people end up gambling more than they can afford? Like anything, it usually starts small (just ‘trying it out’); perhaps some friends are talking about betting on a ‘sure thing’ in an upcoming horse race and you decide to join in and ‘have a flutter’. The irony is that, for some people, actually winning that first gamble is the worst possible thing! The reward centres in the brain light up, a trickle of excitement follows and it feels good. You may not bet again for a few days, or weeks even, but that good feeling has been stored and sooner or later, another opportunity comes along and another bet will be placed. More wins can further strengthen the reward response and the good feeling it brings, while on the flip side, losses can result in a need to recoup the money placed.
Another cruel irony of the gambling spiral is that wins can lead the gambler to try to “keep the streak going” by placing more bets, while losses can trigger a desire to keep betting because “sooner or later” a win MUST follow and the gambler ends up “chasing losses” far beyond what they planned to spend, or (in some cases) what is affordable.
There are, of course, those people who place the odd bet, perhaps on a particular annual event, or special occasion, take the loss or the win, and don’t feel the need to gamble any further. And there are those people who have never gambled or had the inclination to do so.
So, let’s imagine we are a person who does gamble. How do we know if gambling is a problem for us? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this. There is no definitive line, which once crossed, determines us to be a ‘problem gambler’. It also isn’t just about losing more than we can afford to lose (although that is a problem).
When is gambling a problem?
Here are some indicators that gambling could be a problem for you (or someone you love):
Losing more money than you can afford.
- So this is a pretty clear line, right? The stress resulting from gambling to this level can be hugely destructive, especially when it gets to a point that you are unable to pay the bills as a result.
“Haven’t you finished that job you said you’d do for me today yet?”
- You want to achieve something, but instead of working towards it (a new career, a qualification, a hobby, helping out at home, spending time with family) you end up spending hours researching and placing bets. You get to the end of the day, only to find you have missed the opportunity to spend that quality time, or you have no energy left to invest in that thing you wanted to do. Perhaps you let yourself down, perhaps you let down someone you care about.
- Spending time monitoring a match or event – a feature of modern gambling is that of the ‘cash out’ option. You can opt-out part way through an event or match with some profit, but you have to monitor the event to know when to do this. If the event is a close thing, you may end up watching right to the end and missing out on the other things you wanted to do.
- You spend an entire weekend watching matches, races, and events. Come Sunday evening, maybe you‘re £20 up. Was that a productive weekend? What did you manage NOT to do? What could you have been doing in that time?
Emotional regulation and anger
- You might come home from the pub slightly buzzed from a couple of pints and £100 up – you are on a high. Conversely, you may come home slightly the worse for wear and £100 down. Your family no longer know who to expect to walk in the door when you’ve been to watch the game – are you going to be cheerful and fun to be around? Or are you going to be morose, sullen and snappy? The impact of the emotional highs and lows of gambling reaches far more widely than just the person placing the bet.
- As the stakes get higher (perhaps you bet the money to pay the energy bill, certain this was your win) the potential for negative emotional fallout gets greater too. When we lose too much, that one time too often, that time we were having a bad day/week the result can be anger, lashing out at those closest to you. This doesn’t feel good for anyone involved and can drive the people you most care about away.
Liar, liar, pants on fire…
- What would you think if a friend said, “I won a grand on the horses today!”? I’d think to myself “Well done. But how much did you spend chasing that win?” Problem gamblers are often quick to tell others what they’ve won but rarely offer up how much they’ve lost. Gambling companies are quick to promote the big customer wins to show others that ‘anything is possible’. Funnily enough though, they don’t ever seem to share how much customers lose gambling with them.
- It is not just the money that gamblers might lie about either. They may lie about where they have been, or what they have been spending all that time on when family members ask. Or if they do say where they have been, they may lie about winning more than they have to justify the time spent gambling. It all adds up to a whole lot of deceit that can destroy trust and relationships.
“I’ll pay you back tomorrow, I promise…”
- Problem gamblers may get to the point that they are asking friends or family members for money. They may even seek loans (from official, or unofficial lenders) to continue to fund their gambling. This adds even higher stakes to each bet. Even if they do win big, they have to pay back all the borrowed money (and interest) first. If they lose, they have no way to repay the money, leaving them with a difficult time explaining why they can’t repay what they borrowed, resulting in shame and embarrassment at best, and a bigger problem if they have taken out a loan. This can lead to more gambling in a desperate effort to try to recoup some of the losses…
This is by no means an exhaustive list and you may have experienced/observed other symptoms. In today’s technological age gambling is more accessible than ever, so temptation is always close at hand for the problem gambler.
Just to be clear, not all gambling is bad. It is more about your relationship with gambling than it is about gambling itself. When gambling starts to consume your thoughts, drain your money or create worry and anxiety, it is a problem for you. When it negatively impacts relationships, work or other areas of your life emotionally or financially, it is a problem. When you find yourself compelled to keep placing bets, regardless of whether you have the money, or are neglecting other commitments, it is a problem. There is no one ‘line’ for everyone.
How we approach problem gambling: A Quest Cognitive Hypnotherapy Approach
At Quest we approach problems from the direction of the solution – where do you want to get to with your therapeutic journey? A therapist can help you to define and resolve:
- Do you want to stop completely or reduce your gambling? Defining your end goal helps us establish the path to helping you achieve it.
- How do you do your gambling problem? As Quest therapists, we understand that everyone experiences their problem in their own unique way, identifying how this is for you helps us to work together to find the right solution for you.
- What are your specific triggers? By tracking the times you feel more, or less tempted/compelled to gamble we can work out your triggers and look to resolve/neutralise the root cause(s) of why you gamble.
- It can help to advise people to keep a diary of what emotions they were feeling when they gambled.
- Alcohol may also be a trigger to gamble for some people.
- Neutralise/resolve the triggers. Once we understand the specifics of your experience of problem gambling, we will work together to remove the temptation and teach you techniques to help you stay resilient long after you finish working with your therapist.
As well as the techniques we know as therapists, there are specific gambling-related options we can discuss for example restricting your gambling account access and setting deposit limits.
No one solution is right for everyone and by getting clear on your goals, ways of gambling, triggers and then working on techniques and solutions you can redefine your relationship with gambling – whether that means quitting completely, or moderating to a level that is healthy for you. I still gamble, but because I understand my reasons, resolved the root causes and neutralised my triggers, my gambling is now at a comfortable level and no longer poses a problem to me.
If you’d like to know more about working with problem gambling, or how I or another QCH therapist can help you, get in touch or find a therapist on the QCH Therapist Finder:
You can also find links to charities and other sources of information here:
And lastly, remember, when it comes to gambling, for every winner there is always a loser.