Learning how to feel our feelings is a skill that we aren’t generally taught in school or by our parents, but is essential for good mental health.
When we gamble, we are usually responding to a feeling which has been triggered by a thought; it could be you want to reward yourself “I deserve a flutter I’ve worked hard all week”. Or it could be because you have a feeling of sadness that is very painful that you want to avoid feeling or thinking about. This could be due to the death of a loved one or a relationship breakup. The thought here might be something like “I deserve some happiness for all I’ve been through” along with other thoughts such as “just $20 won’t hurt” or “what have I got to lose”.
Sometimes we go on autopilot, so we aren’t aware of what we are thinking or feeling before gambling and feel like we aren’t even in control of ourselves.
Why do we do this?
The brain likes to make things easy for us (imagine trying to think how to drive every time you want to go somewhere), and most of the time this is a good thing.
When we are trying to change a habitual behaviour like gambling or drinking where there has been a reward attached to it like excitement, it can be harder than we think to stop even if it is causing problems in our life like draining our finances and causing us to lie to our loved ones.
I recently received a call from a man who had been playing the pokies, betting on his phone and putting a lot of money on Tattslotto and Powerball. He had been on a trip to Vegas (which he had abstained from gambling to save up for) and after his gambling spree, found it very difficult to rein it back in.
This was causing him to lie to his wife about his activities, and he was worried that when he receives a large sum of money next year, that he will gamble it all away. When I spoke to him about the thoughts he had the last time he gambled it was “I saved $1,000 by painting the room myself, so I deserve to gamble with it”.
This made him have the feeling that it was ok to gamble even though it was causing problems with his wife, leading to him possibly getting divorced. When he discovered the connection between his thoughts and his feelings and the resultant gambling behaviour, he was able to have some compassion for himself and decide how he wanted to think about gambling and whether he wanted it to be a reward for doing his painting.
A learning process
Learning to make this thought, feeling, action connection requires skill and practice just like learning how to drive a car. That is why it is important not to get too angry with yourself if you find yourself gambling when you hadn’t planned to.
Think about what you were thinking and feeling beforehand and maybe you will discover why it happened. Similarly, feeling the sadness that we might feel when someone we love dies rather than avoiding or resisting it is also a skill.
Sometimes we have avoided all negative feeling so much that we think that if we feel the feeling, then we will get sucked into a hole that we won’t be able to come out of it. This is never the case, and when we start to allow our feelings to be there, they become less scary. Urges to gamble can be like that too. This is also a feeling that we can accept and explore rather than avoid or resist as if it will kill us.
When we have an urge to gamble, what is the thought? Maybe write it down as well as any other thoughts that are going on so you can examine them better. Have curiosity rather than beat yourself up for even having the thought.
Thoughts and feelings drive our actions and knowing what they are can help us to choose what we want to think and to feel our feelings better.
Take a few deep breaths and observe what comes up in your mind. Allow the thought to be there and explore it more. You might not like your thoughts but that is ok. It is still better to shine a light on them than be unconsciously ruled by them.
If you need a hand we are here to help; you can chat to one of our counsellors or call the helpline on 1800 858 858 to discuss your thoughts and feelings more. This is what we are here for.