According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, 15% of Americans gamble once per week, and nearly 3% of Americans meet the criteria for problem gambling.
Of course, problem gambling is not unique to the United States. It exists everywhere. Most players are aware of the common methods to deal with it, such as attending Gamblers Anonymous and self-excluding from casinos. However, there are other methods that I want to share with you today.
If you suffer from problem gambling, don’t be afraid to use every single tool at your disposal. The “traditional” advice is great, and you should follow it, but you can try some of these methods, too.
Before I outline some of these methods, let’s take a quick look at what happens in your brain when you become addicted to gambling. Understanding what’s happening in your brain is crucial in the quest to control it.
How Gambling Addiction Affects the Brain
Neuroscience has given us a lot of insight into how the human brain works. Things like MRI scans allow doctors to see areas of the brain up close and see how they react in certain situations. In 2013, experts did a study on gambling and, as a result, they upgraded gambling addiction into the same classification as substance abuse, a behavioral addiction.
The study found that gambling addiction shares lots in common with drug or alcohol addiction, including:
- Dependence – Needing to gamble in a day-to-day routine.
- Tolerance – The need to gamble more to get the same rush.
- Withdrawal – Uncontrollable cravings to gamble.
- Failure to Quit – Repeated (failed) attempts to stop gambling.
- Negative Consequences – Strain on personal relationships, financial problems, etc.
This study showed that gambling activates the brain’s reward system. It also found that when problem gamblers watched videos of their favorite games, their reward systems were understimulated.
Huh? That doesn’t make sense, right? You would think that gambling addicts would have overstimulated reward systems, hence the loss of control. Yet, when you think of it another way, it does make sense.
Problem gamblers are trying to activate that reward system, and when you factor in tolerance, it’s no surprise that a simple video didn’t light up their reward centers on the brain scanner. Problem gamblers have a harder time getting excited, so they have the need to gamble more often and risk bigger amounts.
Gambling also involves uncertainty, and other studies have shown that the brain releases dopamine when gambling. Dopamine is a chemical commonly linked to experiencing pleasure.
It’s easy to see how one could become addicted to gambling. Don’t beat yourself up or blame yourself if you have. It’s simply your brain playing tricks on you, and you can regain control.
Now, let’s look at some interesting methods to deal with problem gambling. Thankfully, as the chart below shows, searches for it are on the decline long-term. This suggests that things are getting better and some of these techniques are working.
Method One: Buy a Gaming Machine
When you think about it, gambling itself isn’t actually the problem. It’s the money you lose and the amount of time you spend gambling that cause most of the negative consequences.
I have a friend who I’ll call John for the purposes of this article. John loved video poker. He’d get paid, hit the casino, and play video poker until morning. Sometimes, he won big. Other time, he lost most of his weekly wages (there’s that uncertainty again). More often than not, he’d have to borrow from me or another friend to pay his bills.
This was clearly a problem, but John just couldn’t quit. Eventually, his wife came up with a rather unconventional solution. She bought him a video poker machine and installed it in the basement.
There are a lot of therapists out there who would dress me down just for suggesting that a gambling addict should keep gambling in some form. Yet, I’m telling you from personal experience that it worked for my friend. He rarely visits casinos anymore. He’s happy to smoke cigarettes, drink a few beers, and play video poker in the comfort of his own home, and the money goes right back to where it came from, minus the cost to run the machine.
I asked him if he gets the same kick out of it, and he said that he did, although jackpots weren’t quite as exciting. He still loved winning, got a huge rush out of it, and didn’t have any of the negative consequences of problem gambling in his life. I think that’s a fair trade-off for a little diminished excitement when winning jackpots, don’t you?
If you can’t afford to buy a gaming machine or don’t like the idea of it, consider switching to social casinos. These are online casinos without real money bets. You play with credits, and there’s a fun social feel to the experience, as you battle it out with other players for the top spot on the leaderboard.
Disclaimer: Depending on where you live, you may need a license to have a real-money gambling machine in your home. You should also not allow other people to play on them. It’s almost certain that it’s against the law.
Method Two: Consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Remember how I mentioned earlier that problem gambling is now considered a behavioral disorder? It makes sense, then, that cognitive behavioral therapy would be highly effective.
CBT equips you with the skills to change your own behavior. If your brain is hooked on the rewards of gambling, CBT will help you retrain your brain, such as by rewarding yourself for not gambling.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is something practitioners study for years, so a complete overview is well beyond the scope of this post, but some of the techniques used for the treatment of problem gambling include:
- Learning your own patterns. A therapist will help you find patterns you didn’t even realize existed in your behavior. For example, there’s a good chance that you bet on certain days and at certain times.
- Identifying your gambling triggers. Depending on where you live, a trigger could be a gambling ad on TV. Likewise, it could be an argument with your spouse or a bad day at work. It could also be as simple as boredom. Knowing your triggers can help you become self-aware before the urge to gamble takes over.
- Evaluation of consequences. There’s a good chance you’re already aware of some of these. However, a professional CBT practitioner can help you discover other long-term consequences and come to terms with some negative behavior you may be in denial about. For example, if you think a few years down the line and discover that gambling is likely to cost you your marriage and family, you’re probably going to be a lot more motivated to stop.
- Techniques for changing your behavior. This is the heart of CBT. You don’t just talk about it. You learn skills and acquire tools to help you control your urges and make better choices. Using these tools, you can intervene at different stages of an episode and regain control.
When many people think of therapy, they think of sitting on a couch and pouring their hearts out to a Sigmund Freud lookalike. While talking is involved in a CBT session, it’s much more than that.
One of my friends was taught a visualization technique which she has never forgotten. She learned to think of gambling as walking through a door. Every day she didn’t gamble was a step away from that door. If she gambled, she would be back on the other side of the door again, and all that work would be undone.
The more days you rack up, the more reluctant you’ll be to go through the door again. Humans are like that. We don’t like to waste time and effort, which is actually part of the reason why many gamblers can’t stop. They’re determined to win back what they’ve already invested plus some extra.
Method Three: Appoint an Accountant
When I say appoint an accountant, I don’t mean you have to go out and spend money on a professional. Instead, appoint someone you trust, such as a sibling or spouse, to monitor your bank accounts daily.
This creates accountability, and it’s important that this person won’t let you off the hook. They need to be fully aware of your gambling problem, and they need to have an assertive personality so they can confront you about spending too much money. In fact, they should confront you about spending any money on gambling at all.
It’s so easy to lie to yourself, hide gambling transactions, and lose track of how much you are spending. Having another person call you out, make you aware, and hold you accountable for spending money on gambling will quickly teach your brain that you can’t get away with it and will face serious consequences.
It’s important to appoint someone who’s both trustworthy and supportive. They shouldn’t berate you, make you feel bad, or get angry with you. They should simply challenge you and remind you of your goals to stop gambling.
Often, the shame of failing in front of someone who has invested their time and energy in helping you is enough to put the brakes on problem gambling.
Five Other Ways to Stop Gambling
The above are some ways to regain control of gambling which not everyone has thought of. For example, many people who I tell about buying a gambling machine genuinely wonder why they’ve never thought of it.
However, let’s quickly recap on some of the better-understood ways to help with problem gambling.
- Admit it. Say “I have a gambling problem” and face it. Don’t kid yourself and say you’re just halfway there or that it’s mild. Step one to recovery is to admit the problem, face it, and ask for help. Believe it or not, when you do this, you’re already halfway to recovery.
- Self-exclude from casinos and online gambling sites. In many countries, operators are required by law to prohibit you from playing. Some online gambling sites have permanent self-exclusion features.
- Shut down any accounts you use to gamble online if necessary. For example, if you always gamble with PayPal, consider closing your account temporarily. You can always make a new one later. If you use credit or debit cards, cut them up or hand them over to someone you trust.
- Find a sponsor who has recovered from problem gambling. Nobody understands it better than someone who has been there. Many support groups will connect you with a sponsor or mentor who you can call or reach out to when uncontrollable urges occur. You don’t have to battle this alone. We’re social creatures, and sponsors are the key to success. They often have problem gambling stories with happy endings to inspire you and spur you on.
- Reward yourself when you succeed. So many problem gambling management techniques focus on what you shouldn’t do. Don’t forget to reward yourself when you succeed. Save the money you currently spend gambling and take a vacation, eat out with your family each week, or take your partner on a date. It can be a good idea to create a new bank account so you can watch this money-pile grow. The dopamine you get from this will train your brain to delay gratification for longer-term rewards.
We understand that you love gambling. Heck, we love it so much that we created a website about it. However, there’s a time and a place to draw the line and admit that what was once a fun pastime has become a problem and you may need to quit gambling before it ruins your life.
We’re with you. We’re 100% dedicated to responsible gambling, and we hope you use some of the techniques taught here to regain control. If you want to help someone with problem gambling, be sure to share this article with them. Doing so could literally save their lives.