As a certified gambling counselor, I’ve often been asked how to stop gambling. Some individuals just want to save money, realizing they have been spending too much on gambling. Others are looking to completely stop gambling because they have lost control, and it is causing significant problems in their lives.
In this article, I provide seven ways to stop gambling and save money. I’ve developed these strategies over several years of working within a casino doing problem gambling prevention, helping people who are struggling with their gambling, in addition to working within a hospital setting, providing residential support to persons recovering from problem gambling.
Although gambling functions like any other addiction, there are some important distinctions to consider. Hopefully, this article helps you make sense of the unique features of problem gambling, in addition to providing some useful tools to help you gain back control.
If you are considering counseling, click here to learn more about my online services.
Let go of common gambling fallacies
Unlike other forms of addiction, gambling relies on the powerful force of random reinforcement. Rewards are distributed randomly, causing players to develop distorted thoughts regarding their level of control over the outcome. This is especially powerful if someone had an early big win.
Here are some common gambling myths and reasons why they are not true:
“I have a system for winning.”
This is an illusion of control. Although our minds are built to find patterns and predict outcomes, this is not helpful in the artificial world of gambling where outcomes are random. Seeking the need for coherence and understanding, we develop rigid rationalizations, trying to make sense of the outcomes. We may feel like we have a system, but outcomes in casino gambling are random.
“It is due to pay out soon.”
This is a form of false hope. For slot machines, and several other forms of electronic gaming, outcomes are determined by a random number generator (RNG). It is a computer chip that automatically generates thousands of random number combinations every second and is always running, even when you are not playing. Hitting the “spin” button selects the random number it happens to be generating at that exact moment, converting it to a position on the reels. Therefore, it is never due to pay.
“If I keep playing, I can win my money back.”
This is another form of false hope based on the idea that hard work should ultimately pay off. Although this may be an adaptive rule in real life, it does not apply in the gambling world. Casino games are always configured to take more money than they give back. This is also known as the “house edge”.
Although outcomes are random, the amount of money you get for a win is less than the amount you spend on a loss. For example, it’s like betting $1 on a coin toss and only getting around $0.85 if you win. Since you’ll end up paying $1 roughly half the time and earning $0.85 roughly half the time, you can see how this is a losing game in the long-run. In casino gambling, the longer you play, the more you pay.
“I feel lucky today.”
This is the illusion of control, combined with false hope. Our intuitions may serve us well in everyday life, allowing us to sense subtle social cues and adjust our behaviours accordingly. In the world of gambling, intuition is more like a form of magical thinking.
Other forms of magical thinking include the use of good-luck charms, prayers, or rituals such as touching the machine in a certain way. If this is simply for entertainment purposes, it may be harmless, but if it is an attempt to control the outcome, it will merely lead to further disappointment in the long-term.
These gambling fallacies promise a sense of control and hope for a better future, but they are illusions that actually do the opposite. You may feel a false sense of control and hope in the short-term, at the expense of genuine control and hope in the long-term.
Decide if gambling is really worth it
Deciding to stop gambling ultimately comes down to whether or not gambling is worth it. Even if it’s not worth it monetarily, most people who have problems with gambling say it’s not about the money. You can recognize the financial downside, but still enjoy the sense of escape.
Here are some common reasons people continue gambling:
“Gambling makes me happier”
Even if you know you are spending more money than you are getting back, you may justify continued gambling based on its ability to make all of the world’s problems go away temporarily. Using gambling to escape is one of the most common forms of gambling, especially among those who use electronic games such as slot machines.
Although many people in the early stages of problematic gambling may believe it makes them happier, this illusion is often shattered when their lives become unmanageable. Gambling offers a false promise of happiness, just like it offers the false illusion of control and false hope for a better future. Genuine happiness can be built, only after letting go of the illusion provided by gambling.
“I can make money gambling”
I have heard this several times from persons who engage in professional forms of gambling where a significant amount of skill is involved. For example, tournament poker allows players to gain a slight mathematical edges on one another, making it a game of both skill and chance.
The first question I would ask is whether or not your gambling is actually profitable. Do you keep a balance sheet, closely tracking your wins and losses? Are you treating your gambling like a business? If so, and you are profitable, I would ask you this question: Is it worth it?
Let’s say you’re actually able to make a bit of money. Is this amount of money worth the roller-coaster of stress? Is it worth risking the relationships it is perhaps putting in jeopardy? Is it worth the constant lying, loss of integrity, and resulting low self-esteem?
What do you truly value in life? Is gambling getting you closer or further away from that?
“I’ll be bored if I stop gambling”
Many people looking for gambling support can’t imagine their lives without it. By this point, gambling often becomes a full-time job. Spending so much time gambling, other hobbies and interests go by the wayside. In my years talking to patrons who frequently visit the casino, one of the most common reasons to continue gambling is that there is nothing else to do.
Although gambling may feel like the only form of leisure activity currently, I’ve seen many people adjust to an enjoyable life outside gambling. It may take some brainstorming at first, but given time, it is possible to rekindle old hobbies and find new fulfilling activities to engage in.
This fear of boredom is common in all addictions, so if you’re interested in learning more, check out my article 16 Reasons Being Sober Is Worth It. Many of the lessons apply to gambling as well.
Self-exclude or use a gambling blocker
This is another area unique to gambling addiction. Unlike bars and liquor stores, you can ban yourself from casinos and block yourself from gambling sites. This has actually been a significant part of my role within casinos. When someone decides they want to ban themselves (self-exclude) from a casino, there is a process to sign themselves out while receiving emotional support and information on treatment resources.
GameSense is a larger North American organization dedicated to this form of support. Since I’m familiar with the North American system, I will just speak to my understanding of the process in this context. Also, procedures may vary depending on the casino.
Larger venues owned by major chains often have sophisticated facial recognition software. When signing yourself out, your photo is taken and entered into the system, alerting security if you enter. Recently, I’ve witnessed considerable gains in the accuracy of this facial recognition software.
Self-exclusion provides an immediate deterrent, allowing someone to form new habits. Unfortunately, gambling is now everywhere. Many people who cannot enter the casino may take up gambling online. One helpful application that provides an online version of self-exclusion is Bet Blocker. This is an app that blocks all gambling-related content and can be installed on your computer or mobile phone.
Replace gambling with other activities
Once you’ve decided to commit to changing your habits, it is important to consider healthy replacements for gambling. Since gambling can take up a significant amount of one’s time, self-excluding can often result in boredom, fuelling the desire to return to gambling.
Consider the things you used to do before gambling took over. If these activities are no longer appropriate, consider trying new activities or learning a new skill. If you’re interested in learning something new, I recommend checking out sites like Skillshare. With thousands of classes to choose from, this online community allows you to gain new skills, network with peers, and find new opportunities. Check out their free trial here.
*As an affiliate partner with Skillshare, I receive a commission if you sign up for a free trial.
Identify your gambling triggers
Identifying your gambling triggers means noticing the people, places, and things that make you automatically desire gambling. This may be a specific group of friends, a particular route on your drive, or having access to a particular device.
Many people who regularly visit a gambling venue form friendships around their shared interest in gambling. Although this may be a healthy form of social connection for some, it can be unhealthy for others who feel trapped in patterns of gambling. It becomes even more problematic when people begin loaning money or asking for loans.
Gambling venues have their own internal culture and networks of regular visitors, providing a sense of belonging. It is crucial to notice when the people you surround yourself with are not aligned with your values. If you find yourself lending money to others, it could be helpful to determine if this is a form of co-dependency. To learn more, check out my article, When Does Helping Become Enabling?
When it comes to places that might be triggering, consider where you are when you feel the urge to gamble. Is this along a specific part of your drive? Is this during a particular part of your day? Many people find it helpful to take new routes home or include social supports in specific aspects of their day when they regularly feel the strongest desire to gamble.
Lastly, consider the specific things in your life that trigger gambling. For some people, this may mean getting a non-smartphone or a phone without access to the internet. Since gambling is now accessible everywhere, merely having a smartphone can be a strong trigger in early recovery. If taking a break from your device is not feasible, perhaps it could mean blocking or deleting certain apps.
Uncover what’s driving your gambling
As stated earlier, when gambling becomes an addiction, it is often no longer about the money. Gambling is often used as a way to escape from deeper issues such as stress, anxiety, pain, boredom, or loneliness.
Consider any unmet needs and how gambling is serving as a temporary solution at a long-term cost, taking you further away from actually meeting these needs.
To learn more about these unmet needs, check out my recent article: What Are Our Underlying Needs?
In that article, I delve into the six underlying needs driving addictive forms of coping, offering tips on how to meet these needs more effectively, in addition to providing further resources.
Seek gambling-specific counseling
If you want to gain back control over your gambling, reaching out for support significantly increases your odds of success. Various mental health and addiction professionals may be helpful, but many people do not realize there are dedicated gambling counselors who specialize in this specific area.
If you are starting to think gambling is no longer worth it, I am currently accepting new clients residing in Canada or the US.
Send me a message below to request a free 15 min phone consultation or click here to learn more.
As an addiction counselor, I’ve learned the importance of considering a person’s underlying needs. Addictions, as well as other mental health issues, are often the result of unmet needs. There are various theories of fundamental human needs, including Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the basic psychological needs theory. The approach I present here is based on the core yearnings in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
This approach is supported by over 330 clinical trials, providing a comprehensive understanding of our human needs that encompasses those provided in the previously mentioned theoretical models.
Our underlying needs consist of the following:
- Belonging and connection
- Meaning and self-direction
- Coherence and understanding
- Feeling and experience
Let’s delve into each of these six areas, exploring what each of them means and how we can meet these needs in more effective ways.
We need belonging and connection
Human beings are fundamentally social creatures. The need for belonging and connection is crucial for our mental wellness. Being one of the main themes in my articles, I’ve often discussed the power of social connection.
According to a Harvard study that followed a group of individuals for 80 years, the quality of one’s relationships is the best predictor of overall health and happiness:
“…people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.”
When this need is not met, we often attempt to fill the relational void through ego identification. Inflating our sense of self through stories about our own “specialness,” continually comparing ourselves to others. As described in my article, Is Social Media Making us Less Social:
“Social Media is making us less social when used to compare oneself to others, contributing to higher levels of loneliness and lower levels of well-being among frequent users. It can be social when used to connect with others.”
Our attempts to compensate for the connection through comparison drives us further apart. “I am” statements require social comparison, making us feel even more cut off from others. Clinging to the idea of our specialness gives us a seductive illusion of connection at the expense of genuinely meeting this need in the long term.
According to ACT, the yearning for belonging and connection underlies the process of “self as content” vs “self as context.” Rather than trying to fill ourselves with more identity content, we can more effectively meet our need for connection by letting go of the rigid ego identification. This requires recognizing we are not the contents of our thoughts, but rather, we are the space where the thoughts occur.
A useful metaphor consists of seeing ourselves as the sky rather than the weather. The sky is not the weather. Rather, it is the ever-present blue space that contains the weather. The sky does not attempt to control clouds as they come and go, nor does it identify with the clouds.
Sometimes our thoughts are like storm clouds, while other times they are like fluffy stuffed animals. We can more effectively meet our need for connection by simply noticing when you are having these difficult thoughts based on social comparison and letting them go. As Eckhart Tolle asks, “Can I be the space for this?“.
We need meaning and self-direction
Without a sense of meaning and self-direction, we feel apathetic, lacking motivation. As described in my articles on Veterans in Transition, This is a common theme among persons leaving the military where they gained a deep sense of meaning in their roles compared to the relative sense of meaninglessness in civilian life.
Others may experience a lack of meaning and self-direction in soul-destroying jobs where you feel like a robot, just going through the motions for a paycheque. Working in these deserts of meaning, we may feel tired all the time, only gaining the strength to complete the most basic tasks out of fear of punishment.
Meaning and self-direction are the most fundamental ingredients of motivation. As an addiction counselor, motivation is one of the most important variables I focus on. As described in my article on, How Motivation Works, we feel motivated when we have a sense of being in control of our actions.
When someone takes away your sense of control by telling you what to do, it provokes a reaction to do the opposite. This is why the collaborative technique of motivational interviewing is used in addiction counseling. Rather than telling someone what to do, we can help someone meet their need for a sense of self-directed meaning by evoking their values and collaborating with them to create an effective plan.
In ACT, the yearning for meaning and self-direction underlies the process of having a values orientation. This means gaining a clear understanding of what you value. Although many people tend to immediately focus on goals, they are distinct from values. Values are a “way of being” without a particular end-point. For example, if you value being “compassionate,” there is no end-point. You can always turn to your values to fill the motivational fuel-tank. As stated by Viktor E. Frankl:
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
Finding your “why” provides motivational momentum in difficult times. Gaining clarity on one’s core values allows for ongoing motivation, independent of one’s specific goals.
We need a sense of competence
A sense of competence, mastery, or feeling that we are progressing is another key underlying feature of motivation. Feeling stagnate in our lives deprives us of the natural rewards we receive when seeing progress.
Fundamentally rooted in the dopaminergic reward-centres of our brains, we experience pleasure when correctly solving a problem. This explains why we experience satisfaction after completing a check-list, solving a puzzle, or winning a game.
These tasks are engaging so long as they are challenging, but not so challenging that it begins to evoke feelings of incompetence. We naturally enjoy what we are good at, which is the core of developing a passion. As stated by Cal Newport in my article on What it Means to Follow Your Passion:
“Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”
We are often told to find our passion through soul searching, but this can often have the opposite effect. Rather than finding our bliss, we end up living in our heads, continually planning or strategizing without taking action. Without taking action, we cannot know what we genuinely enjoy since this enjoyment is dependent on developing skill in a particular area.
My personal experience with this occurred as I developed more skill in writing. I used to be terrified of a blank page, never knowing what to write. Throughout school, I would only write the bare minimum word-count for the assignment and always relied on several quotes to add more fluff.
Throughout the last decade of blogging, in addition to writing a doctoral dissertation, I’ve gained quite a bit of practice writing. This practice has led to quite a bit more competence, leading to an increased sense of reward and enjoyment.
In ACT, the yearning for competence underlies the process of committed action. This means building patterns of committed action, integrating them into your life over time. The most common barrier to committed action is procrastination, based on perfectionistic ideas.
Procrastination is perhaps more rooted in fear than laziness. Rather than beating ourselves up for not taking action, it could be more helpful to consider the underlying fears preventing action toward your valued goals.
We need a sense of coherence
A sense of coherence and understanding allows us to make sense of ourselves and the world. When this need is not met, we feel uncertainty and fear. A common way to cope with a lack of coherence is to impose false order, retreating into your head, and treating life like a problem to be solved. Common defense mechanisms include rationalization and intellectualization.
When the problem-solving mind takes over, we become fused to our thoughts, making it difficult to take a step back from them. For example, if a driver cuts you off, it is easy to immediately rationalize that this person is selfish and careless. Imposing false order onto the character of the other person allows the world to make sense again, amidst the driving chaos, neatly dividing the everyone into judgmental categories of “good” vs “evil”.
Although this form of black and white thinking provides an immediate sense of coherence, it causes us to react in anger, perhaps putting ourselves in further danger. Flexibly looking at the situation without clinging to our initial judgments allows us to be open to the uncertainty inherent in the situation.
For example, the seemingly “bad” driver may have recently received news that a loved one is passing away, and they are rushing to the hospital. Although this does not excuse dangerous driving, being open to these potential alternatives allows us to gain enough distance from our judgmental mind to be able to choose the most effective path forward, rather than merely reacting.
The purpose of stepping back from your thoughts about a situation does not have to do with the accuracy of those thoughts. Maybe you are right that the driver is doing something dangerous. Maybe you are right that what the driver did was illegal. Maybe you are right that they need to be taught a lesson. But at what cost?
Rightness does not equal effectiveness. If you’ve ever tried to change someone’s behavior by telling them that they are wrong, you will quickly see how your rightness does not translate into effectiveness. As described in my article on Motivational Interviewing, we can’t make people change by being more right. This same logic applies to our own minds. We may be right, but at what cost.
In ACT, the yearning for a sense of coherence and understanding underlies the process of cognitive defusion. When we are fused to our thoughts, we are entangled with them, unable to make space for potential alternatives. We create rigid versions of reality, supported by unconscious rules about the way things ought to be. Rather than genuinely meeting our need for coherence, we become further frustrated by a reality that refuses to conform to our expectations.
Stepping back from our thoughts requires opening up to a space of uncertainty in a way that allows for more practical ways to choose one’s path forward. My article on How to Stop Living in Your Head delves more into common thought patterns, in addition to offering some helpful exercises.
We need a sense of orientation
The need for orientation gives us a sense of place in the world. When suffering from a chaotic past, it is common to lose this sense of orientation, taking us out of the present moment. Constant thoughts of the past or worries about the future occupy our attention as we try to gain a sense of security in the present.
The more we live in the past or the future, the further we get away from the present, amplifying a sense of disorientation and disconnection. We may dwell on why something happed in the past, what we could do better in the future, and how it’s not safe to focus on the present moment because getting out of our head might result in some kind of danger.
In ACT, this yearning for orientation is based on the process of present-moment awareness. Mindful attention to the present moment allows us to meet our need for orientation because we can more effectively attend to actual events in the here and now rather than getting caught up in rumination.
The GPS metaphor is helpful to make sense of this underlying need. Imagine you are driving with a GPS and it tells you that you will need to turn right up ahead. Rather than looking at your current location on the road, you fixate on the GPS screen, missing all of the events happing around you in real-time. When you look up, you fixate on the rear-view mirror, analyzing all of the things you nearly hit while you were distracted. Realizing that turn is coming up, you turn your eyes back to the GPS screen, focused on the exact distance left before the turn.
Although it is useful to plan for the future, like using a GPS, and consider the past, like using a rear-view mirror, it can take away from genuine orientation by taking us away from the present moment, making us less effective as we navigate our path in life. My article on The Benefits of Meditation for Addiction delves into the power of mindfulness practice.
We need a sense of feeling
Our final underlying desire is the need to feel and experience life. Sometimes we feel pleasant emotions while other times we feel unpleasant ones. When the desire to avoid unpleasant ones takes over, we avoid situations that could potentially evoke discomfort. This means also avoiding pleasant situations.
For example, a person may avoid the joy of close relationships due to avoiding the potential pain that might result if the relationship fails. A person who values social connection may avoid the pleasure of connecting with others due to the risk rejection and the resulting disappointment.
In ACT, this yearning for feeling underlies the Acceptance process. A helpful metaphor includes having a tug-of-war with your unhelpful emotions. You may tell yourself, “Don’t feel anxious… Don’t feel anxious… Don’t feel anxious….” As you engage in this fruitless struggle, you become more anxious. Rather than choosing to do a particular meaningful task, you decide to avoid it, fearing these feelings will get out of control.
Avoiding situations reinforces the potential danger to your mind, strengthening its association with a fear response. Your mind says, “If you’re avoiding this situation, it must be dangerous.” Like an addiction, avoidance offers the temptation of a short-term gain at a long-term cost. Genuinely meeting one’s need to feel joy requires a sense of openness to feel painful emotions.
An openness and willingness to experience discomfort does not mean resignation or masochism. Instead, it means dropping the rope in the metaphorical tug-of-war, letting the uncomfortable entity stay where it is, and deciding to pivot toward a valued direction. Discomfort may come and go, but your ability to choose your way forward remains unchanging.
When considering the underlying factors driving addiction and other mental health issues, it is crucial to keep these needs in mind. Without considering a person’s unmet needs, we only see the symptoms of these unmet needs. Trying to treat the symptoms rather than the underlying needs does not get to the root cause of the problem.
A person can be supported in stopping an addictive substance or behavior, but they may still act in ways that a destructive to themselves and their relationships. When underlying needs are not attended to, a person attempts to fulfil these needs in ways that are ineffective, leading these needs to be even further unmet.
Here is a summary of the information conveyed in this article, describing the ineffective and effective ways one may attempt to meet each underlying need:
The need for belonging and connection
Ineffective approach: Constructing ego identities to demonstrate your superiority and receive external validation.
Effective approach: Noticing you are having self-critical thoughts rather than identifying with these thoughts.
Meaning and self-direction
Ineffective approach: Following what you think you “should” be doing, according to social standards.
Effective approach: Asking yourself what you value and what you want your life to be about.
Ineffective approach: Procrastination to avoid failure, protecting a perfectionistic ideal of your envisioned future self.
Effective approach: Building habits of committed action, developing skills over time, despite short-term setbacks.
Coherence and understanding
Ineffective approach: Engaging in rigid debates, focused on being right.
Effective approach: Stepping back from your thoughts/ judgments, flexibly attending to the present moment.
Ineffective approach: Analyzing past situations and worrying about the future.
Effective approach: Mindfully bringing your attention to the present moment.
Feeling and experience
Ineffective approach: Avoiding painful feelings and the situations that may evoke them.
Effective approach: Being willing to experience painful feelings and the situations that may evoke them.
For an in-depth exploration of these underlying needs in the context of the six processes of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), you can check out my article How to Improve Psychological Flexibility. In that article, I share more metaphors and exercises designed to help you meet your underlying needs more effectively.
If you are interested in taking a deep dive into ACT, I highly recommend the online ACT Immersion course by Dr. Steven Heyes, the founder of ACT. This course has been an invaluable resource for me personally and has informed many of the explanations provided in this article. If you are serious about learning ACT, this is the course for you. Check it out here for more information.
The Big Book of ACT Metaphors is another great resource I would recommend. It is a highly practical book full of explanations, metaphors, exercises, and ACT worksheets, ready to use in your everyday practice.
ACT Made Simple by Dr. Russ Harris is another excellent resource, offering an easy-to-read summary of ACT. This book has recently been updated to include an ACT understanding of self-compassion and trauma, translating complex ideas into simple language.
If you would like to connect with a specialized ACT therapist, view the directory on the official ACBS website here.
If you are thinking about addressing your relationship to alcohol or substances, you may ask yourself if being sober is worth it. Sobriety may look boring, difficult, and unappealing, but the drinking or substance use might be starting to impact the rest of your life, making things even more challenging to manage.
It may feel like you have to choose between chaos and boredom. Right now, these may seem like the only options. Fortunately, there is another way forward.
In this article, I share the experience of Stephanie, a fellow recovery advocate. Four years ago, Stephanie could not imagine living in a state of sobriety. Now, she is pursuing her dream of helping others in recovery. Here are her reasons why it’s worth being sober:
Being sober is worth it because you can live a life of meaning and purpose, you feel healthier and more vital, you’re thriving rather than just coping with life, and you’re no longer living in a constant state of guilt and shame.
The decision to stop drinking or using substances can often feel like an internal debate, so let’s consider the arguments for and against each of these reasons.
You can live a life of meaning and purpose
People may turn to substances due to boredom or the lack of meaning and purpose in life. Using a substance to cope with daily life may take the edge off temporarily, but it further entrenches a person into patterns of behavior that make it more difficult to escape.
You get to build the life that you want.
Your mind may argue, “I don’t know what kind of life I want to build anyway…”
“You can build any life you want. Sobriety is a rebirth into clear-headedness. You can pick what you want to do and build your goals from that.”
A helpful technique from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) requires gaining clarity regarding your values. One way to do this is to think of a particular role model in your life. What characteristics do they have? What do you value about them? How might you live by some of these values in your own life?
Your life is worth living every day.
Your mind may argue, “But my life is not worth living. I’m hopeless, and I’m a burden on others. They would be better off without me.”
“Every life is worth something. Addiction makes us think that we are nothing. We feel we have nothing left to offer, and all we have done is hurt our families and friends. When we are not using, we can build more meaningful relationships and build a life we feel is worth living.”
A helpful ACT technique consists of taking a step back from thoughts like “I’m worthless.” Rather than thinking, “I’m worthless,” consider rephrasing it as “I’m having the thought that I’m worthless.” This small change of wording in your self-talk makes a significant difference, allowing you to take a step back and regain focus on what matters.
You get to see your kids grow up
If you have kids, your mind may tell you they don’t notice, it makes you more fun around them, or it’s not that bad.
“Addiction tells us we can use so that it can work it’s way in and set roots. Are you sure you are more fun around your children? They may have a very different perspective. We think we can hide our use, but it is not always hidden as well as we think. Think about when a person is drunk and trying to be quiet.”
If you have any variation of these thoughts, it may be useful to take a step back and reconsider what others might be seeing. In ACT, this consists of perspective-taking. Imagine looking into your child’s eyes, and you see them looking back into yours. Put yourself behind their eyes, looking back at you. What qualities do you want them to see in you? What qualities would you want to see in yourself?
You can help the community in a way others can’t.
Your mind may tell you, “what did the community ever do for me?”
“Not all of the community is against you, and you have allies. You will not be alone. But no one can help you unless you help yourself first. Although the work is going to be within you, you will need outside support, and with time, you can find that.”
One of the key lessons in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is the healing power of connecting with something beyond yourself. For some, this may be connecting with their understanding of a higher power. For others, this can mean connecting with a community.
You’re thriving, rather than just coping
When using substances to cope with underlying pain or boredom, this short-term solution prevents one from achieving a state of thriving. Instead of just getting by, sobriety allows you to strive toward your full potential.
You never worry if your utilities will be shut off.
Your mind may tell you that you don’t have financial problems, so this is not a concern.
“…addiction makes millionaires into homeless people. I’ve seen it a lot.”
Even if drinking or substance use does not lead to financial issues in the present, it could result in increasingly putting off financial responsibilities and disorganization in many areas of your life.
You learn to deal with life in a way that isn’t going to kill you.
Your mind may tell you, “It’s only a few beers or a bottle of wine in the evening.”
“It starts as a couple on the weekend and then turns into a few a night. Eventually, the party always ends, and the nightmare begins. It always ends the same way, and it’s not pretty. It will kill you; it’s only a matter of when.”
When drinking or substance use gets out of one’s control, it can spiral downward at a rapid pace. The difference between casual drinking and drinking to cope with underlying issues is that the latter eventually gets out of one’s control, causing increasing harms as use escalates.
You’re not living in a constant state of withdrawal.
If you experience physical pain when stopping opioids or constant shakes when stopping alcohol, your life may start to revolve around obtaining the substance to feel normal.
“…no withdrawals is freedom for me. That was what held me prisoner. I couldn’t be sick like that.”
Freedom from continually impending withdrawal means having a significantly greater amount of choice in one’s life.
You’re not living in content guilt and shame
Guilt is a sense of doing something wrong, whereas shame is the sense of being a bad person. Both often show up when struggling with substances.
You earn back respect and trust.
Your mind may tell you it’s hopeless and that no one will ever trust you again. It may feel hopeless right now, but trust can be rebuilt over time.
“Trust can be built. While it’s harder to build with some and some relationships will never be repaired, we can build new relationships and repair the ones that are fixable.”
When trust is lost, words alone are no longer enough. Trust is built through repeated patterns of committed action over time.
You don’t feel worthless anymore.
Your mind may tell you’re worthless and that you don’t deserve a better life.
“We can’t change what others think, but we can change what we think. When we look into the mirror, the person we see in addiction is very different than the person we see in recovery. I am happier with who I see, and I see the people around me change how they deal with me and treat me.”
Changing what we think requires recognizing these patterns of unhelpful thoughts and changing the way we respond to them. Greet the thought like an old friend, telling it that it’s not helpful right now. Then, letting it be, ask yourself what matters right now. Then, move forward, committing to actions that are most relevant to the things that matter.
You feel healthier and more vital
There are many health benefits to sobriety. Although we may often hear this from medical doctors, it is hard to internalize unless we experience it first-hand.
There are no hangovers.
This is the most obvious and immediate benefit of being sober. Hangovers can derail our entire day, taking us further away from moving toward a valued direction in life.
With the increased energy and improved mood, you can focus on more meaningful areas of life rather than merely coping with a state of impaired health and well-being.
You’re more present, focused, and sharper.
Chronic substance use can impair your ability to think quickly, clearly, and retain information. Depending on the substance, the effect can vary, but I’ve personally talked to many people who noticed a significant negative impact on their brain function.
“You can see life clearly and find solutions to the issues we would have normally not been able to because drugs would be clouding our perceptions.”
This clarity allows for increased progress in all areas of life. Being sober can lead to improved memory, cognitive function, in addition to an enhanced ability to cope with stress.
You have a better schedule.
When frequently using alcohol or other substances, life can become chaotic, making it challenging to stick to a schedule.
“You are not up all night using and sleeping all day. Having irregular sleep patterns leads to us generally feeling yucky and doesn’t help in maintaining a life we can be proud of.”
When regaining a sense of order and healthy habits, motivational momentum snowballs into building a life you can be proud of.
When contemplating sobriety, the voices in your head may be engaged in an endless debate. As described in my article on the Types of Denial in Addiction, our minds can make up many reasons why we don’t have a problem.
If you are thinking about getting sober and are wondering if it’s worth it, hopefully the reasons presented here can help you in your journey. If you would like to reach out to Stephanie, you can find her on Facebook here. You can also check out her powerful story of addiction and recovery here.
Although being sober has been worth it for Stephanie, along with many other individuals I’ve spoken to, there are still some people who may disagree. If being sober is just as difficult as using substances, or worse, this may be a sign that some underlying issues are needing to be addressed.
If this is you, counseling may be a helpful way to work through difficult thoughts and painful emotions driving the urge to use substances. For more information, see my article on The Benefits of Counseling.
As an addiction counselor, I offer online counseling to persons struggling with alcohol, substances, gambling, and gaming. If you would like to discuss whether counseling is right for you, contact me here.
Many people find it difficult to be flexible in life. When unexpected situations arise, it is easy to feel frustrated, making you want to lash out. These rigid ways of being prevent you from getting what you want in the long term, increasing frustrations as you dwell on how things are not working the way you want.
Increasing your mental flexibility helps you stay calm in challenging situations, allowing you to cope with difficulties more effectively, and better navigate stressful situations to achieve desired outcomes. So how can you be more flexible in life?
- Accept what you can’t change
- Step back from your thoughts
- Focus on the present
- See the bigger picture
- Live by your values
- Take some risks
Let’s take a closer look at each of these areas of mental flexibility.
Accept what you can’t change
The first step to being more mentally flexible is to accept the things that are outside your control. When living rigidly, you are stuck in your head, trying to control everything. Holding onto this sense of control is a false sense of security, causing more frustration.
Getting clear on the things that are outside our control requires a sense of acceptance. As written in the Serenity Prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
When we can accept our limited ability to change an event, we can then let go of the anxieties and frustrations, fueling our need to cling to a false sense of control.
The practice of letting go takes courage and willingness to step into a sense of uncertainty. There is a vulnerability in uncertainty, but there is also serenity and freedom from unproductive thoughts.
Step back from your thoughts
Stepping back from your thoughts allows for more flexibility in life by giving you mental space. Rather than merely reacting to your mental chatter, creating space between your thoughts and actions will enable you to choose more effective ways to adapt to a situation.
For example, suppose a car cuts you off in traffic while speeding. Your initial thought might be that the person is selfish and immoral; therefore, they should be punished. This can lead to putting yourself in unnecessary danger.
Rather than merely reacting, taking a step back from your thoughts allows you to think of alternative scenarios. Perhaps the driver just got the news that a loved one is dying, and they are racing to the hospital. There are infinite possibilities, and we cannot know the “truth” at that exact moment.
We cannot control the other driver, so stepping back from our initial judgments creates the space necessary to move forward effectively.
Focus on the present
Focusing on the past and future takes you away from your life in the present. Being more flexible in life requires developing a sense of present-moment awareness.
One way to do this is to bring your attention to the breath. You might also notice the sensation of your feet on the floor. You can then bring your attention to the sounds around you, curiously listening to the many layers.
Bringing your attention to physical sensations takes you out of your head and into the present since these sensations are occurring in the present moment. You are not thinking about your past breath or anticipating your future breath. It is an ever-present bodily rhythm you can tune into at any moment.
Focusing on the present builds behavioral flexibility since you can more appropriately respond to situational demands. For example, if a car cuts you off while you are lost in thought, you would be less able to respond and adapt to the situation safely.
Focusing on what is going on in the here and now allows you to notice relevant details, especially when things don’t go as expected.
See the bigger picture
It is easy to get caught up in thinking about how we are being perceived, having thoughts like, “How does my hair look? Did I wear the right clothes? Do I fit in?”. This leads to constant social comparison, leading to rigid ways of defining oneself: “I’m a failure, I’m a mess, I’m not enough.”
Rigid self-definitions cut us off from others, leading to rigid ways of being, for self-protection. Thinking you don’t belong causes you to retreat into avoidance patterns, preventing you from meeting your social needs and getting what you want in life.
Seeing the bigger picture gets you out of your head by bringing your attention to what others might be experiencing at that moment. For example, if you’re at a meeting at work, you can see the situation from two different perspectives: your own perspective, or the perspective of others; although the latter takes some imagination.
From your perspective, you may start to wonder what everyone thinks of you, making you try to constantly manage their impression. Instead, try seeing the bigger picture and consider what each person might be experiencing at that moment. What might they be thinking or feeling? What do they want? How do they see one another?
You will likely realize other people are more focused on themselves than you. Seeing this bigger picture allows you to get out of the mental cage of rigid self-definition, leading to constant impression management.
This will allow you to genuinely connect with others, rather than being too preoccupied with yourself.
Live by your values
Getting clear on your values allows you to gain flexibility in life by giving you a sense of direction. Unlike goals, values provide an eternal sense of direction, despite obstacles.
For example, goals are like using a GPS to travel to a specific location. Values are like a compass pointing East. You never completely get to “East.” If an obstacle gets in your way, you can take a temporary detour, but you can adapt, reorienting yourself East when you get past the obstacle.
Values consist of ways of being, consisting of adverbs such as, lovingly, creatively, genuinely, excellently, and charitably. Having a clear understanding of your values allows you to reorient yourself toward what matters whenever you find yourself in a challenging situation, faced with difficult thoughts or painful emotions.
Take some risks
Taking reasonable risks allows you to act on your values, overcoming rigid mental barriers preventing you from moving forward toward a life of meaning and purpose.
Although this requires the courage to step out of old ineffective habits, it also requires creating new habits. Habits, routines, and common behavior patterns are not necessarily rigid unless you continue them after they are no longer useful. The ability to adapt to more effective habits allows you to move forward more efficiently.
Taking risks does not necessarily mean being reckless. Instead, it means gaining the necessary courage to continually step outside your comfort zone, in service of your values, so you can live the life you want.
These tips on being more flexible are based on the evidence-based psychotherapeutic practice of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
The six points shared above are based on the six processes of ACT. If you are a mental health practitioner or just interested in taking a deeper dive into these six areas, see my article, How to Improve Psychological Flexibility.
In that comprehensive article, I delve into each process, sharing metaphors and practical exercises, in addition to sharing the psychological reasons why they work. If you are looking for even more tips and tricks, you can check out my article, How to Stop Living in Your Head.
If you are suffering from prolonged anxious thoughts or depressed moods, it may be helpful to go beyond self-help methods and seek professional support.
Counseling can help by exploring your unique mental barriers, allowing you to develop coping skills to navigate your life flexibly. To learn more, see my article, The Benefits of Counseling.
When considering whether or not counseling is right for you, it’s important to understand the benefits clearly. As described in my article on What Counseling is Not, there are often many myths about counseling, preventing people from reaching out for support.
Counseling is a lot more than merely getting advice. It involves collaboratively working with someone, delving into the underlying issues that drive unproductive behaviors. Being a counselor myself, I’ve seen it’s benefits first hand, as clients build healthy coping skills, getting more of what they want out of life.
Here are the benefits of counseling:
- Fewer anxious thoughts
- Improved mood
- Insight into self-destructive patterns
- Increased self-esteem and confidence
- A Clearer sense of purpose
- Better focus on the present moment
- Greater interpersonal skills
- More effective coping skills
Let’s take a closer look at each of these benefits.
Fewer Anxious Thoughts
Many people seek counseling to help with anxious thoughts. Although counseling cannot erase these thoughts, it can help a person change their relationship to these thoughts.
For example, if you suffer from anxiety, you may benefit from counseling in several ways. First, counseling can highlight the particular patterns of thought interfering in your life, considering the common triggers and patters one uses to cope with these thoughts.
Once you gain insight into your anxious thinking patterns, counseling can help diminish the power of these thoughts over your life through various techniques. To learn more about this, see my article on How to Stop Living in Your Head.
Another significant benefit of counseling is its ability to improve your mood over time. Research demonstrates the effectiveness of psychotherapy to reduce depressive symptoms.
For example, if you suffer from depressed moods, finding it challenging to gain motivation, counseling can help by incrementally building patterns of committed action. Through collaborative conversations, counseling helps build motivation by focusing on building a sense of one’s values.
By focusing on one’s values, counseling works to build a deep internal sense of motivation rather than merely focusing on short-term external motivations. This is the difference between doing something because you feel fulfilled and doing something because you are being paid.
To learn more about motivation, see my article, How Does Motivation Work?
Insight Into Self-destructive Patterns
Counseling can help you become aware of self-destructive patterns in your life. As an outsider, a counselor can provide an external perspective on your situation, inquiring into how specific patterns continue to play out.
For example, you may be having repeated arguments with a significant other regarding the same events. You may realize there are common themes in your arguments, but through counseling, these patterns can be discussed with a neutral person who can help explore the patterns in more depth, looking for potential ways out of these self-destructive situations.
Increased Self-esteem and Confidence
Counseling can also benefit one’s sense of self-esteem and build genuine confidence by getting to the root of the issue and working on specific activities to address it.
For example, if you always feel like you are not enough, counseling looks at how you can change your relationship to that particular thought. Rather than trying to erase the thought through positive affirmations, counseling helps you pivot toward what matters, rather than staying stuck in the same unproductive thought-loops.
For more on positive affirmations, see my article, “Do Positive Affirmations Work?”
Clearer Sense of Purpose
Counseling can also benefit one’s sense of purpose. Suppose you feel lost, unable to gain a sense of direction, or are unmotivated to engage in everyday activities. In that case, counseling helps by first gaining clarity on your values, then collaboratively working with you to build a realistic plan.
For example, we are continually bombarded with media messages about the need to “find your passion.” Still, many people feel like they are spinning their tires, constantly feeling like they are drowning in a sea of options. Social media bombards us with social comparisons, tempting us to model our lives on the most recent trends.
Counseling helps you build a sense of purpose so you can focus on building a values-based path forward. For more on the concept of passion, see my article, “What Does it Mean to Follow Your Passion?“
Better Focus on the Present-moment
When struggling with anxious thoughts or depressed mood, you may feel stuck in your head, worrying about the future or ruminating on past events. Counseling can help you regain awareness of the present moment, especially if the practitioner is trained in mindfulness approaches.
One example of a quick mindfulness check-in might be to bring your attention to your breath or other sensations in the body. This practice helps bring focus to the present moment, making you more effective in your daily life.
Here is a metaphor highlighting the benefit of present-moment awareness, from my article on How to Improve Psychological Flexibility:
“Imagine your thoughts about the future are like a GPS voice, telling you what is coming up next. You then become too fixated on the GPS, fiddling with the controls, adding stops, checking your arrival time, and adjusting the volume.
Becoming so focused on the GPS, you lose focus of the road, missing an exit, nearly rear-ending a car, and perhaps even making a wrong turn into a lake. Although a GPS can be helpful, we need to listen to its feedback from the present moment, engaged in the task at hand, and mindful of our surroundings.”
Greater Interpersonal Skills
Navigating social situations is a crucial skill. As I share in my article on Self-Care Tips for Mental Health, interpersonal self-care means having healthy personal boundaries.
For example, counseling can help you develop the ability to say “no” when appropriate, ask for help when needed, and help you let go of toxic relationships. While in unhealthy social situations, you may not be aware of the severity of the issue until getting an outside observer’s feedback.
Counseling can help you gain insight into unhealthy relationships and foster interpersonal skills to navigate these relationships and maintain personal boundaries.
More Effective Coping Skills
Counseling can help you develop skills to cope more effectively with stressful situations. Rather than merely reacting to stressful situations, counseling can help you gain the skills to move forward productively.
For example, counseling can help you gain insight into your patterns of behavior regarding stressful situations, in addition to helping you develop healthy coping skills such as mindfulness and interpersonal skills. Rather than immediately responding to the stress, these skills give you the ability to take a step back and reevaluate how you want to respond.
Although counseling has several benefits, the primary purpose is to help you get more of what you want in life and less of what you don’t want. Doing more of the same will get you more of the same results. Counseling allows you to gain insight into ineffective behavior patterns, unhelpful thoughts, and unproductive ways of coping with painful emotions.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, addictions, or just wanting to optimize your mental toolkit, counseling can help.