Julie Miller's Mental Health Blog

Gambling #2

Posted on: March 30, 2010

Recovery from compulsive gambling looks similar in some ways to recovery from drugs/alcohol addiction.  Ultimately, abstinence from the problem behavior is the goal.  “Harm reduction” is another approach, based in substance abuse treatment, which which the individual’s potential harm from the problem behavior is reduced, but the behavior is not eliminated.  Perhaps one just drinks a couple beers a day instead of a 5th of vodka.

I’m not clear exactly how harm reduction might work with process addictions, but perhaps just gambling when one is in Las Vegas (and of course, the individual doesn’t live in Las Vegas).  Or maybe just cutting down, staying on a budget and only gambling with $100 instead of $10,000.

Frankly, harm reduction may have a place in substance abuse treatment, but I can’t see how it could be beneficial in the long run for anyone with a process addiction, like gambling.  The compulsive behavior continues, but in with an attempt to control it.

A classic sign of any addiction is an inability to control one’s substance use or compulsive behavior, so further efforts to control it by “cutting down” seem destined to fail in the long run.

Abstinence from the behavior is not generally achieved over night, and progress, not perfection, is the intermediate goal.  An individual with a food addiction must eat to sustain life; however, certain foods (sugar, junk food, etc.) are not required to sustain life.  Similarly, drinking fluids is required to sustain life, just not drinking alcohol.

I do not need to gamble to sustain life.  I do not need to go to a casino or betting track to sustain life.  Frankly, I don’t even need the internet (at least not yet) to sustain life.  Abstinence from any and all gambling behaviors can be realistically achieved, with work, willingness, and motivation.

An addiction is a coping skill, a way to cope with life when I don’t know anything else to do.  I might be bored, angry, sad, or scared.  Those are some internal triggers for acting out in the compulsive behavior.  I might see the odds for who will win the NCAA Basketball Tournament on TV, triggering the urge to gamble.

How can I deal with my feelings or external triggers without gambling?  Support and professional help.  Some folks can overcome their problem behaviors without help, from friends or family or professionals.  Many, however, do need that “leg up” to find their way out of the cycle of problem gambling.

Many services, free or low cost, are available.  Gambler’s Anonymous is a 12-step group supporting members in abstinence from problem gambling.  It is run by other recovering problem gamblers and has no fees or dues.  It can be found online and in-person meetings exist wherever there are people with gambling issues.  Here’s their website:



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