Gambling Addiction and Recovery

Gambling addiction gets needed attention in March, Problem Gambling Awareness Month, a time when lottery programs and casinos take a risk of a different kind by pointing some things out to their often big-playing and big-paying participants, many of whom they’d actually lose if more addicted gamblers could admit or recognize their need to quit.

Problem is, most won’t, according to available statistics.

What’s involved in gambling addiction? The addict may engage in one or more of the possible varieties of play—e.g., card games, slot machines, betting on sporting events, lotteries—and experience any or all of the following ramifications and more—depression and anxiety, co-occurring substance abuse and dependence, loss of one’s job, divorce, commission of crimes, and suicidal thoughts and actions.

Whereas support groups like Gamblers Anonymous have proven effective over time, some therapies have not fared as well. Per a pertinent Scientific American article, some of what hasn’t and has worked:

…For reasons that remain unclear, certain antidepressants alleviate the symptoms of some impulse-control disorders; they have never worked as well for pathological gambling, however. Medications used to treat substance addictions have proved much more effective. Opioid antagonists, such as naltrexone, indirectly inhibit brain cells from producing dopamine, thereby reducing cravings.

Dozens of studies confirm that another effective treatment for addiction is cognitive-behavior therapy, which teaches people to resist unwanted thoughts and habits. Gambling addicts may, for example, learn to confront irrational beliefs, namely the notion that a string of losses or a near miss—such as two out of three cherries on a slot machine—signals an imminent win.

Another resource is the national helpline (888-LAST-BET) run by Arnie and Sheila Wexler. Along with Steve Jacobson, decades-long recovering gambler and certified counselor Arnie Wexler is the author of the 2015 All Bets Are Off: Losers, Liars, and Recovery from Gambling Addiction.

Although the book is largely about Arnie’s pre-treatment struggles, states Gary A. Enos in Addiction Professional, it’s also about how his wife, Sheila Wexler, also now a gambling addiction counselor, was significantly affected by them.

How the Wexlers view the evolution of gambling problems in this culture:

The profile of the gambling addict has changed considerably over the past two decades, say the Wexlers. Back then only about one in five of the individuals they were helping were women. That percentage has continued to grow as more ‘escape gamblers’ attracted to slot machines have experienced problems.

Many programs that treat alcohol use disorders fail to detect a co-occurring issue with gambling, and that’s the behavior an individual will turn back to upon leaving treatment. It’s difficult these days to identify an individual who is not affected by some cross-addiction, the Wexlers say.

Gambling, often seen as a socially acceptable and legal pastime causing no harm when practiced in moderation, is, on the other hand, currently adversely affecting an increasing number of individuals, including teenagers. If you have any doubts about whether you have a gambling addiction, consider taking a look at the Screening Tools on the NCPG (National Council on Problem Gambling) website.

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