Almost all people we treat for gambling addiction suffer from stress. For half of those, stress and mental health struggles drive their gambling behaviour.
In this blog, we look at gambling and stress, and what you can do to break the link.
What is stress?
Firstly, it’s important to understand that stress is an important emotional reaction which can serve a purpose – it is natural and healthy. It is our body's way of telling us that we need to focus, be aware of what's going on in our environment, and to change things. For example, it may be your body preparing you to be at your best in your workplace.
But stress can become too much to tolerate, to the point of overwhelming you, or drawing you into a gambling problem. At this point, we need to find ways to reduce the intensity of the emotional suffering stress brings.
When I refer to stress in this blog, I'm not talking about general stress, but rather - emotional suffering. And the link between gambling behaviours and stress is why it’s important for us to treat patients for both.
Gambling as a distraction
When you are stressed, gambling might feel like a relief and a distraction.
But as I’m sure you’ve felt, gambling can cause more stress in a variety of ways. It will likely cause financial stress if you end up gambling more money than you intended, and you start racking up debt. It could also lead to stress and strain on relationships, causing a loss of trust between you and your family and friends.
Gambling is not an effective coping mechanism. If you are looking for something to ‘take the edge off’ after a long day, try getting some fresh air. The thought of a 30-minute walk around your neighbourhood may not seem like it would be relaxing. But, exercise, as you may hear elsewhere, is one of the best natural stress-reducers.
For many people with gambling addiction – no matter how severe – the gambling has become a coping strategy or a reaction to stress and emotional suffering. It's a way they manage difficult emotions, including stress. It's a bit like people who smoke a cigarette or have a drink, even for those for whom gambling is a more straightforward habit.
The habit itself causes extra stress and suffering; from financial losses to the impact gambling can have on family life and relationships. You might also be holding on to it, so it’s a secret, hidden addiction.
One way or another, stress and emotional suffering play an important part of problematic gambling. Either it's a cause of problematic gambling, or it's a response to the gambling.
How to help
Managing stress and emotional suffering is an important part of the work we do at AnonyMind. It’s why our clinicians, who are trained to help people stop gambling, are experts in treating mental health difficulties, including stress and emotional suffering.
And there are various ways we can try to help people.
Helping understand the link between emotional suffering and gambling
Believe it not, the link isn’t always that clear for people - they don't always know what's driving their addiction. So, a massive part of the work we do is to help someone figure out what those links are.
What is sitting underneath the gambling, and what's driving that urge? How is gambling a reaction to stress? We really help people explore and understand that relationship – it’s a huge and vital part of effective therapy.
For some of our clients, just figuring out that link is enough. We can see an almost ‘lightbulb’ moment when people say things like, “oh my gosh, I'm gambling because of this thing because I thought it was helping me.” Just an awareness of traumatic memories can be enough to make people learn solutions for themselves.
Helping break the link
Many people need support beyond identifying and understanding the link. So, the next part of their recovery process can break that link between stress and the urge to gamble as a coping strategy.
We help people who want to stop gambling to find healthier ways to deal with the urges to gamble. And we help them find appropriate ways to cope with and manage the underlying stress and emotional suffering when the feelings surface.
This might include guidance on how to communicate or connect with people in their life about their experiences.
It may require more in depth, psychological work on dealing with past traumas. Or it can be more practical in terms of helping someone restructure their life and reprioritise things, to pick up healthier lifestyles. This really can help people to be less susceptible to stress and suffering.
Helping manage reactions to triggers and urges
We help people to slow down and consider their reactions.
So, we might use mindfulness exercises to help someone carefully observe and notice what's happening inside themselves when they get triggered.
This should lead us into a position where people are able to notice a trigger or an urge to gamble, but not immediately act on it. Because an urge is like a wave. Yes, it's strong, but it does pass if you don't act on it. It will go away again, especially if we’ve identified more effective or healthier ways of managing stress or other forms of emotional distress.
It is incredible the difference that it makes when you're aware of what's happening. And that's essentially what mindfulness is. It's about slowing things down. Being able to notice what's happening in yourself and being able to observe and sit with it - rather than try to avoid it.
Avoiding stress and emotional suffering is part of the problem. If you're inclined to avoid suffering, then it can cause its own problems, such as using gambling as a distraction.
Helping to have difficult conversations
Some of the work in therapy to reduce stress can be to support people to have difficult conversations with their loved ones. This is like talking about the problems they are having with gambling to get that off their chest. If it's no longer a secret, there’s less stress. This can be a massive part of alleviating the stress of gambling.
Helping by signposting to additional support
The stress of financial loss can be massive. And it can be a distraction from managing the gambling addiction, and the stress it brings. So one of the things we try to do is help people deal with those practical issues. We may, for example, signpost people towards debt management organisations. We may also highlight services such as GamStop which can help block the ability to gamble.
Just acknowledging and taking initial steps to deal with financial implications can be a big step towards recovery by reducing stress.
Get help for gambling and stress
We hope you’ve found this blog helpful. And if it encourages you, or someone you know to consider seeking help for a gambling problem, we're ready for you at AnonyMind. Our secure website - gambling.anonymind.com - offers anyone struggling with gambling behaviours an online appointment with one of our psychologists or psychotherapists. Take a look here to learn more about the first few sessions of therapy and what to expect.