This blog article first appeared on Counsellor Sam and has been republished with full permission.
One thing to always think about when addressing gambling problems, is relapse. Unfortunately it is a common part of the change process and can seem to come up out of the blue. Here are some quotes from clients who were asked to reflect on the times they had relapsed:
I was going so well and then I found myself driving to a venue and going in. I told myself I would only gamble $50 because I deserved a treat, after all my hard work. I ended up emptying my bank account and leaving there 3 hours later in a state. Looking back there were lots of signs I was headed for a relapse – but I didn’t notice at the time.
After I had that fight with my partner, I knew I was going to gamble. I went straight to the pub and ordered a beer, then started to bet. I just didn’t care anymore.
I caught up with an old girlfriend and after lunch, she suggested that we put some money into the pokies. I didn’t want to be rude and say no, so I went with her and we spent $15 each. After she had left, I went back there and spent much more by myself.
Even when we have made changes to our behaviour and seen the progress ourselves, we can often slip back into old habits and ways of thinking. If you think about it, there are probably times that everyone has experienced a relapse of a kind. Think about a time you have started an exercise regime, and experienced great results and thought ‘I’m going to keep this up forever’. Then life gets busy, the routine gets disrupted, and we slip back into old habits. It takes a lot of effort to make change stick, particularly with something as addictive as gambling.
Some clients that we speak to will talk about making big changes in their lives when their gambling causes them to reach crisis point. They will put the money management into place, go to counselling, and set themselves goals. They see big improvements in their relationships, mental health and general wellbeing. Then, when everything has settled down again and the crisis has passed, they will relapse.
Why does this happen?
There are a number of explanations, but one is that that addictive part of our brains is really powerful. And once the reasons for stopping gambling are gone (and someone is feeling financially stable again), the reasons to gamble might become a bit louder. Just the same as the part of your brain that says ‘go on, have another chocolate biscuit, it won’t hurt’, is motivated by reward, so is the gambling part of your brain. Gambling is often enjoyable for people, so of course we will have a hard time saying goodbye to it forever. When things settle down and the stress caused by gambling diminishes, we can be quite vulnerable to relapse if we’re not careful.
Some people will have the need to test themselves, or believe that now the problem is managed, they can control their gambling. Unfortunately with gambling, the neural pathways are incredibly strong. People will talk about going back to a venue after 6 months away, and losing huge amounts of money in one go. They might lose even more than they had been used to losing because they had saved up money in the meantime, or hadn’t limited their access to it, believing they would be safe. Unfortunately those neural pathways are there and are re-activated by the environment, by the machines, even by the smells.
It might help to compare this to when you taste a certain food, or smell a perfume or something cooking. That sensation can trigger memories, emotions, things from the past that we associate with it. With the pokies, they are designed so that, when you hear the music, or see the symbols, your brain goes right back into ‘gambling’ mode. The reward centres of your brain are activated and it is very hard for you to walk away. The machines are designed to ‘hack’ your brain so that you’re stuck there. Over time the pathways get weaker, but they will always be there. With pokies it is much safer to stay away altogether, to avoid being ‘re-activated’.
In our next blog we will discuss some ways to avoid relapse and make changes stick for good.
Getting your relapse prevention plan in place of the puzzle, but it is an important factor. If you’ve experienced relapse before, or are concerned about relapsing in the future, it may help you to talk to a trained counsellor to get some support. Find out more.
There is also help available from an experienced gambling counsellor call Gambling Help on 1800 858 858 to speak confidentially about your gambling.