This blog article first appeared on Counsellor Sam and has been republished with full permission.
Welcome to the third part of the relapse blog – in the previous blogs we discussed the impact of environmental factors in relapse. In this blog we will look at the urge to gamble and relapse. The urge to gamble has been well documented in research to be one of the most powerful factors related to relapse (Oakes et al, 2011, Oei and Gordon 2008, Smith et al, 2013). Even after recovery, many gamblers will still have to deal with urges that often come out of the blue and increase the risk of relapse. Despite the gamblers best intentions not to gamble once the urge rises it can become difficult to resist the temptation to gamble.
Gamblers report triggers often unique to their own circumstances that result in an automatic response to gamble often described as excitement, an adrenaline rush, a compulsion or an urge. Some of these triggers are having money, being bored, feeling stressed, being lonely, experiencing physical pain and or managing every day bills. Gambling can distract from the stress associated with for example loneliness pain or financial worries.
Participants in a study by Oakes et al 2011 described the urge to gamble as below:
“It is a terrible drag once it gets into your system and I do not know what drags it, probably the thought of hitting that Jackpot or I have to get back that money that I have lost”.
“There is nothing anybody says or does that is going to stop you. It’s a build-up of intensity and a force that you just go”.
Why is this important?
These quotes highlight the importance of addressing the urge to gamble before it becomes too strong to resist. If a person can address the urge to gamble successfully they will be better protected against relapsing. Most people who attend a gambling counsellor find it very helpful to look at specific urge management strategies to help reduce the risks of relapse.
Just think – if you knew you were going to run a marathon in twelve months time, you would need to start training before the date. You’d need to get used to running short distances, then longer, and build up to the final distance. It would be unrealistic to expect you to wake up tomorrow and run the full distance without doing any preparation! We could also expect along the way that you might experience setbacks, such as injuries and loss of motivation. But if you have the right support and if the goal has a meaning for you, it is likely you will get at least part of the way there in the end.
It is similar when you think about urge management. Urges to gamble can be incredibly strong, and some people even describe feeling like they are not in control of themselves. It is important to remember that, as a gambling problem develops over time, it will take time to manage your urges. It takes time to begin to understand when you will have an urge, and to identify the times that you’ve been able to sit with your urges without giving in to them. In many ways it might feel like running a marathon, because it is a work in progress.
When you think about it, an urge is just a pathway in your brain that has been activated before by gambling. The longer you can go without ‘re-engaging’ it, the weaker the urge will become. After some time, it will lose a lot of its power and urgency, and you’ll be able to focus on other things. A trained gambling counsellor can provide support about how to ‘train’ yourself to tolerate and manage urges.
If you’re struggling to manage your urges, or they feel uncontrollable, it is a good idea to seek some ongoing support by talking to a friend or family member you can trust. Limiting your access to money is also important when you’re struggling with your urges to gamble.
If you’d like some more help with managing urges, call the Gambling Help on 1800 858 858 to speak confidentially about your gambling. We also have some self help strategies to help you look at ways to manage your urges.