Julie Miller's Mental Health Blog

Archive for the ‘"G" is for Gambling’ Category

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:



Problem gambling is a “process” addiction, not a substance addiction.  Process addictions are things like eating disorders, sex addictions, spending/debting addiction – whatever is compulsive and “addictive,” that is not a chemical, drug or other substance.  Sometimes the addictions go together, as in drinking and gambling at a casino.

Gambling is a process addiction that does not create a physiological dependence on a substance and therefore does not create withdrawal symptoms upon abstinece; however, there are many similar dynamics to a physiological dependence on a substance and withdrawal.

Withdrawal symptoms from compulsive gambling may include cravings, urges and longing to return to gambling, anxiety, irritability, a sense of emptiness or loneliness, depression, euphoric recall (remembering gambling as a wonderful thing, and forgetting all the pain caused by it), etc.

I know several individuals who gamble, either with card games, sports betting, casinos, or online gambling.  Most of these individuals have a set limit of the money they will spend and use gambling as truly a recreational activity.  When they’ve used up the funds they set aside, it’s over.  They don’t lie about it or hide it from family or friends.  They are not preoccupied with gambling or with planning their next gambling adventure.  They do not need to gamble with increasing amounts of money to achieve the desired level of excitement (also known as tolerance).  They do not use gambling as a way to escape problems or relieve uncomfortable feelings (such as anger, sadness, helplessness or guilt).  They do not commit illegal acts such as forgery, fraud, theft or embezzlement to finance gambling.  They do not rely on others to provide money to relieve a desperate financial situation caused by gambling.

These behaviors are indicative of a problem.  Do you notice that you relate to some of these behaviors?  Perhaps you relate, but not with gambling; perhaps you relate with shopping, internet, food, or working.

Process addictions can be as damaging to oneself and to one’s family and friends as any chemical addiction.  With the advent of legal casinos in Arizona, run by Native American Tribes, problem gambling has increased, along with options for getting help.

Next time, we’ll talk about what recovery looks like!