The real root cause of gambling addiction

24 April 2020

As strange as it may seem, the real root cause of gambling addiction is not gambling, writes Jason Shiers of UK addiction rehabilitation provider UK Addiction Treatment Centres (UKAT). However, there are steps operators can take to help those showing signs of a serious problem

The manifestation of an addiction seems like the most obvious place to look, and many modalities of help and treatment often look to control the outward manifestation of the issue as a root to resolve the problem.

Anyone suffering with gambling addiction will try everything before getting professional help.

Well-intentioned spouses and family members will reach their wits’ ends trying to help, whether that’s by hiding money or controlling the individual’s whereabouts and what or who they spend time around.

It can go further: monitoring what they watch on TV, access to the internet, gaming and anything that could possibly trigger them into gambling further.

It makes perfect sense that people look to control their own – and others’ – habits by trying to make what they perceive to be the problem less accessible. However, this shows an innocent misunderstanding of the problem.

Just as friends or family members attempt to help those suffering from addiction, gambling operators also, either voluntarily or because of legal requirements, try to take similar steps to help the afflicted.

Yet once again, the measures taken only address the problem at symptom level, with tactics such as:

· Stopping credit cards being used to fund online gambling
· Offering limits on how much, and how often, players can spend on gambling
· Setting limits on time spent gambling
· Offering complete self-exclusion via GamStop
· Reducing maximum stakes on fixed odds betting terminals from £100 to £2

These initiatives might help with the illusion of control but they are of no real help in tackling the underlying problem.

In this gambling is similar to drugs, in that taking away the addictive element does not stop the addiction. For the individual, it’s just an obstacle to overcome – they will find a way to gamble, by foul means or fair.

Misunderstanding of traditional treatments
Attempting to teach gambling in moderation, learning to control triggers, avoid certain geographical locations or to identify emotions that lead us to gamble are all innocent attempts to control the misunderstood habit at its final destination.

But if anything, they will only offer short-term respite.

Look at it this way: it’s like taking the rear carriage of a train, and trying to get it to change the direction of the engine, 15 carriages ahead.

It simply isn’t going to work and it would take much less effort if you knew the real root cause to start with.

To further the misunderstanding, traditional psychological treatments attempt to see where past events and experiences have impacted the person’s psychology and compel them to attempt to escape from reality.

People often spend years in therapy digging into their relationships with their parents, childhood trauma, failed relationships and mental health issues, to desensitise themselves to the emotions they experience so the need to gamble is reduced.

This often has little effect as the problem is not created by the past.

This sort of therapy may well help to some extent, but for creating long-term freedom without having to maintain something, it is not the best solution.

The traditional treatments see addiction as a disease, as a real ‘thing’ inside the person struggling. They are labelled addicts, and treated as sick people trying to get well.

The treatments suggest there is no respite, and that recovery is a lifelong process, with constant practices and processes needed to maintain a life free from gambling.

The reasoning is that only through abstinence can an individual regain control.

So, what really is the problem?
Gambling addiction, at its root cause, is a misunderstanding of how the mind works. It’s a valve for ‘letting off steam’ – we innocently create our own reality in the mind, and it looks scary, unhappy and unfulfilling.

The need to stop uncomfortable emotions becomes unbearable, and gambling addiction becomes the solution for coping with this fundamental misunderstanding.

Think about the how the body heals itself. If you cut your finger, it heals. The signs of the cut soon disappear and before long it looks like there was no injury in the first place. The mind works in the same way, only most people don’t understand that. 

Rather than seeing the true nature of thought as transient, something that passes, they pick and prod at the content of the thoughts, creating negative emotions and a low state of mind.

And imagine what would happen if that is allowed to build up with no outlet. Most of the time it would end in a psychotic episode or a breakdown – the system has to regulate itself.

Gambling is the steam valve that stops people from becoming overwhelmed. It is a coping mechanism, rather than the cause.

The solution
Some find traditional therapy helps but only in the short-term.

People sometimes get help from 12-step programmes such as those offered by Gamblers Anonymous, but often addiction manifests itself in other areas of life, or life is difficult, there is not much joy, peace, security and contentment.

For many of those suffering from addiction, this can mean they return to gambling after a period of abstinence, as the problem was only addressed at its final symptom or with a temporary process or technique.

The solution has to be in a deeper understanding of how we work as human beings. Your treatment should answer the questions you have about why you gamble, what caused it to get out of control and what creates the cycle of dependence.

It should also show you a different way to live life in the moment, free of overthinking, stress and anxiety.

A treatment that can free you from misunderstanding, and addressing why the system needs a valve in the form of gambling addiction, is key.

Our understanding of psychology and how the mind works is developing all the time.

There are thousands of people worldwide with recovery stories who lost everything to gambling but have rebuilt their lives and are completely free without having to maintain or practice any type of recovery.

For them it’s not a disease or something that will never be cured, they are free.

Lasting change comes through insight. When we get an insight into the suffering we are creating, things start to look different.

The need to gamble dissipates and disappears because we are no longer creating our own stress, anxiety and uncomfortable feelings, we are free to be present in the world and enjoy life in a different way.

It no longer makes sense to self-destruct.

What can operators do to help people who are struggling?
That’s not to say that nothing can be done to help, especially by gambling operators.

Everyone is chasing something when they gamble, so those offering it must have effective ways of identifying those whose habits are getting out of control.

It would be useful if operators provided an opportunity for anyone suffering to connect with the right people if their behaviour looked like it was on a downward spiral. This could be done in numerous ways, including:

· AI programmes to detect patterns of behaviour related to addiction
· Pop-ups or live chat features that ask if people need help
· Resource sections on digital media visible at all times
· Employing the relevant expertise to be part of game creation
· Employing a team of addiction specialists that can assist people who ask for help
· Surveys or data gathering methods to assess usage and experiences
· Allocating a percentage of profits to gambling help/rehabilitation charities or organisations

Of course, you cannot force anyone to get help. Many will reject any offer of assistance because they have a lack of hope, but if the opportunity is there I am sure many would take it.

What’s most important is to remember that gambling addiction is not a sign that someone is bad or broken. It goes beyond any ideas about disease, morals or beliefs, what’s right or what’s wrong.

It’s a fundamental attempt to regulate the mind from a misunderstanding of the innocent use of the principle of thought.

Jason Shiers is a certified transformative coach and certified psychotherapist, and also the creative innovations marketing manager for UK Addiction Treatment. Jason has been working with addictions and people in recovery for 25 years and is always looking towards the innate mental health that is inside everyone. He has been cited in multiple articles about addiction and is a regular contributor to many different websites.