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Problem Gambling: Folding your Cards in a Healthy Way

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

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While the odd lottery ticket, sports bet, or visit to the casino with friends might offer a fun and special chance to unwind, for many others these places and behaviours can become problematic and destructive.

In many cases, problematic gambling can impact not only one’s financial means but also spillover into other areas such as work and relationships (family/friends). At its core, problematic or pathological gambling is an impulse control disorder. Despite adverse consequences, an individual with problematic gambling cannot stop despite the need or desire to quit. This addiction is persistent and maladaptive: one continually returns to gambling despite knowing or acknowledging that it is time to stop, and the consequences of such decisions impact not only the gambler, but also those closest to them. In some instances, gambling is also paired with drugs or alcohol abuse.

Here are some questions to ask yourself that may help determine whether gambling (online/casino/lottery etc.) has become problematic:

  • Are you habitually late for work or other activities because of gambling?

  • Are you noticing that you cannot pay bills due to gambling losses?

  • Are you gambling rather than doing an activity you used to enjoy?

  • Do you borrow money from friends/family/institutions to gamble?

  • Do you find you are failing to meet responsibilities or obligations due to gambling?

  • Are you playing at online casinos when you should be working?

  • Do you no longer attend to your children/partner and instead focus/obsess about the next gamble?

  • Do you lie to others about where you have been or how much you have spent on gambling?

  • Do you find that you cannot keep track of your gambling losses?

  • Do you feel bored when you are not gambling?

  • Have you or others noticed that you have extreme mood swings associated with betting/gambling?

Problematic gambling has also been linked to alterations in the brain’s chemistry, notably dopamine, a central player in the reward system of the brain. When one gambles, the reward system of the brain is triggered, and dopamine is released into the body. With such a powerful release of neurochemicals, the individual receives both intense pleasure and greater motivation which can eventually lead to dopamine tolerance. In these individuals, the brain seeks a greater level of dopamine to trigger the reward system, and the individual often tries riskier gambles and more intense bets. Often, to win back the money lost, the individual risks even more and faces greater financial consequences within an “illusion of control” over the outcome of such gambles.

The good news is that with willingness, honesty, and a commitment to get better, problem gambling can be overcome.

Here are some options that might be helpful to consider:

1) Therapy – Often, gambling starts out as a coping activity or way deal with stress, trauma, grief, shame, or other mental health issues. Working with a therapist can be a good start in learning more about the addiction and its effects on both the individual and those around them. Understanding and becoming more aware of one’s triggers, erroneous beliefs, and cognitive distortions can be effective in helping to prevent relapse and achieve greater control over one’s thoughts and behaviours.

** First Step Men's Therapy specializes in problem gambling help

2) 12-step group – Based off the model of Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous is an effective and supportive space to connect and learn from others with similar challenges in a safe and anonymous environment. These groups also help one break through denial, which prolongs the addiction, and practice greater honesty, accountability, integrity, willingness, and commitment with oneself and others who struggle with gambling.

3) Self-Exclusion Programs – Many lottery and gambling establishments offer self-exclusion programs that allow for those who suffer with problematic gambling to take time off from gambling establishments either in-person or online. These “breaks” can offer a welcome pause that can allow those suffering from problematic gambling to have a set period with the distance and space to seek help and start the recovery process.

With recovery and support, problematic gambling can be overcome, and the individual can rebuild their life and find greater freedom not only with their financial picture, but also with their relationships, work, and self-care.

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