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Ways to Give Up Gambling Totally

The gambling industry is booming. Following a dip in the second quarter of 2020, the American Gaming Association reported that in 2021 commercial gaming clocked up a record $53 billion in revenue in the U.S. alone.

For most people, gambling starts out as a harmless hit of excitement; an occasional bet on the Super Bowl or a whirl at a Vegas casino.

But for some, what used to be a bit of fun can turn into a serious problem.

The National Council on Problem Gambling has estimated that around one percent of adults in the U.S. have a severe gambling problem: that is over two million people.

So what can you do if you or someone you love is addicted to gambling?

casino online
Stock image of online casino. For two million Americans, gambling is a really serious problem. Bet_Noire/Getty

Why is Gambling So Addictive?

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Addiction 101

"When people engage in an activity such as gambling, there is a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine which is a feel good chemical; a sign that the brain is enjoying the activity. It's also associated with learning," Nigel Turner, an independent scientist at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health's Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, told Newsweek.

Youssef Allami, a psychologist and president of ALLY Addiction Consulting, said it was these neurological pathways that are responsible for disordered gambling.

"Initially, gambling generally starts as a fun and pleasurable activity," he told Newsweek.

"Eventually, pathways in the brain become rewired, whereby gambling feels to be the only way to potentially feel any kind of pleasure. When this happens, however, gambling loses its pleasurable aspect, and becomes mostly a way of alleviating an underlying urge to play.

"Someone with a gambling problem therefore generally gambles to alleviate an urge–whether it is caused by boredom, emotional distress, or exposure to a gambling stimulus–rather than as a way of seeking out a fun and engaging activity."

This rewiring mostly occurs in two key areas of the brain: the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision making and moderating social behavior; and the so-called "reward center" of the brain. "These are the same regions involved in addictions to substances," Allami said.

Turner said some people are more susceptible to gambling addiction than others.

"The main risk factors for problem gambling are impulsivity, negative affect [like] depression and anxiety, a belief that you can beat the odds, and the experience of past wins. People do win. But it's a vicious cycle in that they typically end up worse off than they were in the first place."

Man worried about gambling addiction
Stock image of a man despairing over his addiction. Gambling can rewire key areas of our brain involved in behavior and reward. Shutter2U/Getty

Patrick Foster, author of Might Bite: The Secret Life of a Gambling Addict, started gambling when he was still a teenager.

"I was gambling for 13 years," he told Newsweek. "I started when I was 19 and finished when I was 31. I tried to stop on numerous occasions but with little success.

"In 2018, after a series of events and knowing that I was going to lose my house and job and having tried to gamble my way out of the financial hole during the Cheltenham Festival in 2018 unsuccessfully, I attempted suicide and was on the verge of throwing myself in front of a train."

It was then that Foster reached out for help.

"The first step is to admit you have a problem and seek help," Turner said.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to quitting gambling, and what works for some people might not work for everyone.

"There is no 'best' method," Allami said. "The most important thing is to choose one that resonates with the person seeking treatment so they can stay committed to their recovery goals.

"Self-exclusion programs and residential treatments have proven to be helpful for many people. At the same time, when gambling is associated with other mental health issues, it may be just as important to concurrently receive help from a mental health professional to also develop more adaptive coping skills to deal with emotional distress."

Group therapy for addiction
Stock image of group therapy. Support groups can be a helpful way to talk about disordered gambling. Zoran Zeremski/Getty

For Foster, limiting his exposure was key: "I went to a treatment facility/addiction rehab in London for several weeks, used Gambler's Anonymous and came clean to everyone. I went abstinent as it was a prerequisite of where I was treated and easier because I was in a very protected and supportive environment with limited exposure and accessibility."

But is it always necessary to quit gambling cold turkey?

Should You Quit Gambling Cold Turkey?

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Alive Academy

"Cold turkey may be a useful method for many people," Allami said.

"However, not everyone is ready to stop cold turkey. In these scenarios, it would be better to adopt a harm minimization approach and rather find ways to gamble that limit damage, such as implementing strategies to limit the amount of money spent, as well as the frequency and time spent on gambling."

Turner agreed that the efficacy of quitting cold turkey will depend on the individual. "Some people SHOULD refrain from ever gambling again, while others can learn to control their gambling," he said. "It's a good idea to stop completely at least at first just to build up resistance to gambling and build up confidence in being able to avoid gambling.

"Some people can get their gambling under control by simply limiting the amount they spend or switching to less problematic games. For example, major lotteries are less problematic than slot machines."

How Not to Slip Back Into Old Habits

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Relapse is not uncommon, Turner said. "Just like smoking, sometimes it takes more than one recovery attempt. But don't be discouraged, people do escape from the Spin cycle."

During recovery, it can be very hard to resist gambling urges, Allami said. "When someone is recovering from a gambling disorder, the temptation to gamble again can be very strong when exposed to gambling cues or opportunities.

Man meditating with laptop
Stock image of a man meditating. Meditation can help distance oneself from gambling urges. Prostock-Studio/Getty

"The first thing is to avoid gambling cues when possible, for example get up and grab a glass of water during the TV advertisement breaks during sports games.

"If someone makes the decision to start gambling again, it is important to decide beforehand what the limits will be in terms of time spent per occasion, money spent, and frequency."

Turner said continued participation in support groups and providing yourself with new distractions can also be helpful.

"Taking up hobbies or other leisure activities can help by filling up down time with something more productive. Mindfulness meditation is very helpful as an ongoing practice because it encourages distancing oneself from those urges and not blaming oneself for those urges, but just letting those urges pass through consciousness."

If you are struggling with a gambling disorder, Foster's example shows that it is possible to get out of the vicious cycle. "There is a way out and help is possible," he said.

"Gambling is never the solution to your problem and will never sort things financially. You have to accept that whilst some people may be able to, you cannot gamble and be in control.

"Don't let it get really bad before you seek help. It's not a reflection of you or your mental strength, it is an illness and you are not alone."

If you need confidential help with gambling addiction, contact The National Council on Problem Gambling to find local resources and support. Call 1-800-522-4700, Chat at ncpgambling.org/chat, or text 1-800-522-4700.

Is there a health issue that's worrying you? Do you have a question about gambling? Let us know via [email protected]. We can ask experts for advice, and your story could be featured on Newsweek.

Uncommon Knowledge

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Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.


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