How to Stop Gambling Urges

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

As you watch yet another gambling advertisement, the familiar pull of a gambling urge grips you. This urge isn’t just a fleeting thought; it’s a powerful force, pushing and pulling at your willpower. In these moments, the allure of a quick bet or the thrill of a potential win tempts you, promising excitement and escape.

Yet, there’s a part of you that resists, a part that’s exhausted from the endless cycle of highs and lows, of temporary thrills followed by lasting regrets. This internal conflict is not just about resisting an activity; it’s a battle for control over your life, a struggle to reclaim your peace of mind from the clutches of gambling.

To stop gambling urges, recognize that you can’t always prevent them, but you can manage how you respond to them. Acknowledge the urge, use mindfulness to observe it without judgment, and choose a different action until the urge passes.

This article offers a step-by-step guide to managing urges to gamble with practical strategies so you can regain control of your life.

Accepting the Urge: The Wave Metaphor

Understanding and managing gambling urges can be likened to the way one might interact with the waves of the ocean. This metaphor can be particularly enlightening in explaining why accepting an urge, rather than resisting it, is a more effective strategy.

Imagine standing in the ocean, with waves (urges) constantly moving towards you. Each wave represents an urge to gamble – some are small and manageable, while others are overwhelming and powerful.

Our initial instinct when faced with a large wave is to resist it, to push against it or try to stand firm. In the context of gambling urges, this resistance is akin to using willpower to suppress or fight the urge. However, just like with the ocean waves, the more you resist, the more likely you are to be knocked over and consumed by the wave. Resistance can be exhausting and often futile in the long run.

Now, consider a different approach. Instead of resisting the wave, you learn to move with it. You accept its presence and let it carry you for a moment, staying afloat and aware. In dealing with gambling urges, this means acknowledging the urge when it arises, observing it without judgment, and allowing it to pass without acting on it.

Step-by-Step Guide to Riding the Urge Wave:

  1. Acknowledge the Wave (Urge): Recognize that the urge is there, just like you would notice an approaching wave.
  2. Stay Calm and Centered: Instead of panicking or immediately reacting, take deep breaths and center yourself.
  3. Observe Its Characteristics: Pay attention to the nature of the urge – its strength, where it manifests in your body, and how it affects your emotions, much like noting the size and power of a wave.
  4. Let It Move You: Allow the urge to be present without trying to change it. Feel its impact, but stay grounded in your decision not to engage in gambling.
  5. Engage in Alternative Activities: Find something meaningful to focus on instead. This may involve physical exercise, a household activity, or engaging in a hobby.
  6. Watch It Subside: Just as every wave eventually loses its strength and recedes, observe how the urge diminishes in intensity and fades away.
  7. Reflect and Learn: After the wave has passed, take a moment to reflect on the experience. What did you learn? How can this knowledge help you in handling future waves?

By viewing gambling urges as waves, and learning to ‘ride’ them through acceptance and observation, you empower yourself to manage these urges with grace and resilience. This approach is less about combating the urges with brute force, and more about developing a harmonious relationship with them, recognizing that they are transient and do not have to control your actions.

Procrastinating on Your Urge: The “One Day at a Time” Approach

The “One Day at a Time” approach is a powerful strategy in managing gambling urges, especially for those who find the concept of permanently quitting too overwhelming. This technique involves procrastinating on your urge to gamble, essentially telling yourself that you will postpone the action to a later time. Here’s how it works:

  1. Acknowledge the Urge: When you feel the urge to gamble, start by acknowledging it. Recognize that it’s there, but remind yourself that you don’t need to act on it immediately.
  2. Decide to Delay: Make a conscious decision to delay your action. Tell yourself, “I won’t gamble today; if I still feel like it, I can reconsider it tomorrow.” This doesn’t mean you’re allowing yourself to gamble tomorrow, but rather you’re postponing the decision.
  3. Focus on Today: Direct your attention to getting through just today without gambling. Breaking down your goal into manageable, day-by-day or even hour-by-hour chunks can make it feel more achievable.
  4. Engage in Alternative Activities: Fill your day with engaging and fulfilling activities. Plan your day in advance with tasks, hobbies, or social interactions that keep you busy and distracted from the urge to gamble.
  5. Use Support Networks: On days when the urge feels particularly strong, lean on your support network. Talk to a friend, family member, or a member of a support group. Sometimes, just verbalizing these urges can diminish their power.
  6. Reflect at the End of the Day: Each night, take a moment to reflect on your success in delaying your urge. Acknowledge your strength in managing the day without gambling.
  7. Repeat the Process: Start each day anew with the same commitment. If you felt the urge yesterday and delayed it, do the same today. This repetition helps in reinforcing your control over the urge.
  8. Celebrate Small Victories: Acknowledge and celebrate each day that you successfully procrastinate your gambling urges. These small victories accumulate and contribute to a sense of accomplishment and control.

By adopting the “One Day at a Time” approach, you effectively procrastinate on your urge to gamble, reducing its immediacy and power. This technique is particularly useful in early recovery stages, where long-term goals might seem daunting. It’s a reminder that recovery is a journey made up of many small steps, each one significant in its own right.

The “Play the Movie Until the End” Technique

The “Play the Movie Until the End” technique is a cognitive behavioral strategy used to manage gambling urges. This method involves mentally projecting the likely consequences of giving in to a gambling urge, instead of just focusing on the immediate gratification. Here’s how you can effectively utilize this technique:

  1. Recognize the Urge: When you feel the urge to gamble, pause and acknowledge its presence. This is your cue to start the technique.
  2. Start the ‘Movie’: Begin by visualizing the immediate pleasure you might experience if you give in to the urge to gamble. This is usually where the mind stops and leads to action.
  3. Play Through the Consequences: Instead of stopping at the pleasurable part, continue the ‘movie’ in your mind. Visualize what happens next. Think about the potential losses, the disappointment, the aftermath of broken promises to yourself and others, and the erosion of trust and self-esteem.
  4. Feel the Emotions: Allow yourself to feel the emotions associated with these consequences. The regret, guilt, financial stress, and impact on relationships should be part of your mental imagery.
  5. Reflect on Past Experiences: If you’ve gambled before, recall the real outcomes you’ve experienced. Remember how you felt after previous gambling sessions that didn’t go well. This real-life reference can add authenticity to your mental movie.
  6. Assess the Ending: Once you’ve played the movie until the end, assess how you feel about the decision to gamble now. Usually, the urge diminishes when you honestly confront the likely negative outcomes.
  7. Choose a Different Ending: Now that you’ve seen the potential negative conclusion, decide to write a different ending. Choose an activity that is positive and fulfilling as an alternative to gambling.
  8. Practice Regularly: The more you practice this technique, the more automatic it becomes. Over time, your brain starts to associate gambling urges with negative outcomes, which helps in reducing their frequency and intensity.

Using the “Play the Movie Until the End” technique helps in building awareness of the real consequences of gambling. It shifts your focus from immediate, often unrealistic, rewards to the more likely and less appealing outcomes, thereby reducing the temptation to gamble. This cognitive shift is a powerful tool in your arsenal against gambling addiction.

Understanding what Triggers Gambling Urges

Understanding the triggers of gambling urges is crucial for managing them effectively. Rather than merely continuing to trigger gambling urges unnecessarily, it can be helpful to minimize triggers so you have fewer urges.

These triggers can be broadly categorized into internal and external triggers:

  1. Internal Triggers:
  • Emotional States: Feelings like anxiety, depression, or boredom can trigger the urge to gamble as a form of self-medication or emotional regulation.
  • Cognitive Patterns: Thoughts and beliefs about gambling, such as the illusion of control, superstitions, or the gambler’s fallacy (belief that a win is ‘due’) can spark urges.
  • Physiological States: Internal states like hunger, fatigue, or the presence of withdrawal symptoms can increase vulnerability to gambling urges.
  1. External Triggers:
  • Environmental Cues: Being in or near a gambling venue, seeing advertisements for gambling, or hearing the sounds of slot machines can act as powerful triggers.
  • Social Influences: Peer pressure or being around others who are gambling can stimulate the desire to gamble.
  • Situational Factors: Specific situations, such as having money or free time, can trigger gambling urges.

Recognizing whether an urge is driven by internal factors (like emotional states or thoughts) or external factors (like environmental cues or social situations) is key to developing effective strategies for managing these urges.

This awareness allows for tailored interventions that address the specific nature of the trigger, leading to more successful outcomes in combating gambling addiction.

Reach Out for Support

As you navigate the challenging journey of overcoming gambling addiction, it’s important to remember that you are not alone in this fight. The strategies outlined in this article, from understanding and managing both internal and external triggers to practicing techniques like urge surfing, are your tools in this battle.

However, the most crucial step you can take is to reach out for support. Whether it’s confiding in friends and family, joining support groups, or seeking professional therapy, the power of a supportive network cannot be overstated. These resources offer not just guidance and strategies, but also the empathy, understanding, and encouragement that are vital in moments of struggle.

Remember, every journey begins with a single step. That first step might be acknowledging the problem, followed by the courage to seek help. This act of reaching out is a testament to your strength and commitment to change. It’s the beginning of a path towards a more controlled, fulfilling life, free from the hold of gambling urges.

So, take that step today. Reach out for support, and start building a network of help and guidance. Your journey towards recovery is not just a path to overcoming gambling; it’s a journey towards reclaiming your life, your happiness, and your future.

As a certified gambling counsellor I can help you gain long-term freedom from this addiction. Schedule a free call with me here and we can discuss how to move forward.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out BetterHelp.com. It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.


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