Seven Key Approaches for Solving a Gambling Addiction and Getting Your Life and Finances Back on Track

In 2005, I went through a period where I played a great deal of online poker. During that timeframe, online poker was in a boom period. It was easy to take money in and out of accounts and there were many people playing who should not have been playing, making huge nonsensical wagers and the like.

Being a fairly analytical person, I figured this would be a good way to bring in some money during my spare time, so I started playing in online poker tournaments after work. After depositing $100 in that account, I did well in several low stakes tournaments and gradually built that balance up to about $500. I then played in a bigger tournament one weekend afternoon when Sarah wasn’t around in which I put down a healthy amount (I think it was $100) and I made it to the final table, earning about $1,200 and bringing my account balance up to about $1,700.

That set the hook. I started playing more and more and more. I played in a few more $100 tournaments where I didn’t do as well, but I shrugged it off. Eventually, I watched my balance drop down to about $850.

On another long Saturday, I played in a $500 entry fee tournament. It was a lot of money. I had lasted for a long time and was just on the verge of making money when I chose to go all in with a pair of aces and a situation that seemed like a sure win. There were only three possible sets of hole cards that my opponent could have that could beat me.

Of course, he had one of those sets. My balance went down to $250 in a heartbeat.

That scared me, but at the same time, I had this immediate urge to just start another tournament. It was at that point that I realized I was beginning to get addicted to online poker.

Thankfully, I had enough sense to stop playing right then and there and give the situation some thought. I went on a walk for a while and thought about things, then I did a bit of research and just decided to quit cold turkey. A few days later, I logged on and emptied out my account.

I was beyond fortunate to have that moment of self-realization early on before it began to have a truly negative impact on my finances and my relationships. I have witnessed firsthand the effects of a gambling addiction on a marriage and on a person’s financial state and it can be devastating.

It’s also a subject that I hear often from readers who ask me questions via Facebook. I’ll hear from individuals who are suffering from incredible personal challenges brought on by gambling addiction.

When I hear these stories, I offer the best help that I can. I’ve looked at my own experiences with gambling addiction, dug deep into the topic through reading, and had conversations with addiction counselors. Over and over again, I see a number of themes that keep coming up in terms of solving the problem.

What follows are seven key steps that seem to be very widely agreed upon when it comes to getting a grip on gambling addiction. They match up well with my own experiences, the experiences of others that I’ve witnessed, and the advice shared by professionals in this area. Consider these steps the beginning of your new journey in life.

Step #1 – Use a Simple Litmus Test to Figure Out If You Have a Gambling Problem

It’s a really simple question. If you’ve ever had even the slightest hint that you might have a problem with gambling, ask yourself this:

Has your gambling ever caused you to have any kind of problem with your money or with your personal relationships?

If that answer is yes or if the question even gave you serious pause, then you have a gambling problem. If gambling has interfered in your financial life or your personal life, then it has become a serious problem that needs to be addressed head on.

One of the most pernicious aspects of addiction is that it leaves you blind to the consequences of your troubles. You’re aware that it’s causing problems in other areas of your life, but you convince yourself that they’re only temporary.

The truth of the matter is that if an addiction is causing you problems in your personal, professional, or financial life at all, then you have a gambling problem and you need to address it as quickly as possible. There are no ifs, buts, or exceptions.

Step #2 – Talk About Your Problems Anonymously

Once you recognize within yourself that you do have a problem with gambling, the next step is to talk about it. That can be very challenging for some, as it means admitting your flaws to someone else.

A great first move in that journey is to talk to someone that you don’t actually know, someone that has a great understanding of what you’re struggling with and won’t judge you, someone that will listen and can help you get ready for further steps.

That’s exactly what the National Problem Gambling Helpline provides.

The National Problem Gambling Helpline is a program run by the National Council on Problem Gambling to help people talk their way through immediate gambling crises and look for local resources to help them recover. You can call the number or even just send a text in order to get the conversation started. Most of the time, this single helpline refers people to groups and helplines in specific states and regions.

Here’s the number: 1-800-522-4700. You can call or text it any time you need help.

Step #3 – Talk About Your Problems to Friends and Family, Especially Those Who Have a Stake in Your Behavior

This is an incredibly painful step for many gambling addicts, as it not only involves confession of their own misbehavior but it also often involves confession of how the gambler’s mistakes have had a negative impact on that person. Telling your wife how you’ve spent some of your retirement savings, for example, or telling a parent that you’ve used their credit cards for gambling can be incredibly hard – not only have you personally failed, you’ve also dragged them down with you without their consent.

Yet it is within that discussion that healing often begins.

Quite often, that other person is aware of your mistakes, so it’s often not purely revelatory to them. Even when you think you have “hidden” your gambling, they’re often aware of it through other signs – receipts, time use, and so on.

The healing comes from the fact that you had the personal strength to realize that you were making mistakes and that you are willing to admit to those errors. That takes character and is a sign that you’re willing to see your own mistakes and fix them to the best of your ability.

Yes, family members and friends are going to be upset with you. They’re going to be disappointed. They might react with anger or tears or sadness or some level of rejection.

That’s okay. That’s part of the healing process. It provides a sign for you that there’s work to be done to make things right.

Step #4 – Discover New Outlets for Relieving Challenging Feelings

For many, many gamblers – myself included, as well as the people in my family – gambling provides an outlet for relieving challenging feelings, and that becomes one of the reasons that a gambling addiction is so hard to break.

Our day to day lives mixed with our own personalities often leave us starving for certain kinds of emotions. Gambling is particularly good at molding itself to fill those emotional needs. One of the biggest strategies for overcoming what gambling provides for you is to figure out exactly what itch gambling is scratching in your life and find other ways to scratch it.

Here are some of the common ways that gambling fulfills an emotional need in our life, along with ways to find a better outlet for that emotion.

You crave excitement and adrenaline. You love the excitement that gambling can provide. You love the feeling that a big win or a big loss can ride on just a single turn of the card or roll of the dice. It’s an adrenaline rush!

The best outlet for this kind of desire is to find a challenging hobby. Many physically demanding hobbies are perfect for this, requiring you to push yourself to the limit and then put yourself on the line in competitions like 5K races and so on. There are many other mentally demanding hobbies that can provide similar feelings, whether it is a competitive game or something else entirely. I get a big adrenaline rush from putting together well-planned strategies in board games, for example.

You crave relaxation. Many people enjoy the soothing nature of some types of gambling. The repetitive feeling of putting a coin into a slot machine, pulling the lever or hitting the button, and watching the dials spin before you see a result can put people in a very relaxed state. Add into that a complementary drink or two and people can use gambling to depart from their everyday worries for a while.

One strategy to try here is to dig deep into meditation. Read some books, watch some videos, and even take a few classes on meditation techniques. I find meditation incredibly valuable for relaxing and getting myself into a mindset where I feel less stress and tend to be very productive.

You enjoy the social bond of going to the track or playing in live poker events. Some people simply enjoy the community that forms around some types of gambling. Perhaps they do it with their friends, or perhaps over time they’ve become a part of a community of gamblers, sharing tips and enjoying each other’s company.

One great solution to this problem is to find other groups to join and participate in. Use to find some groups in your area related to your other interests and dive in head first. If you can’t find anything there to your liking, seek out other sources for social gatherings. Look at the message boards at libraries and at city hall. Get involved with a church. There are many open doors waiting for you if you choose to step through them.

You use gambling as an escape from your problems. Gambling feels like a respite from the other areas of your life, areas that leave you feeling upset and disgruntled. Perhaps gambling provides an opportunity to step away from a difficult relationship, or maybe it provides a break from the stresses of the workplace.

When you find yourself using any activity to avoid the problems presented in your life, you should strongly consider visiting a therapist who can help you find more constructive ways to actually work through those problems and eliminate them without sacrificing your financial future. Quite often, simply having someone to lay out your problems to in an open fashion can really help and leave you with less that you feel as though you have to escape from. You can typically start down this path by contacting your primary care physician, who will help you find the right path to follow.

You use gambling because it fills the hours. You’re bored with your day to day life and gambling gives you something to fill the hours. Sure, you lose some money, but it’s better than simply sitting at home and staring at the television.

If that sounds like you, you should start trying lots of different activities. The suggestions above are a good start – try looking at or examining the message boards at city hall or the local library. Contact old friends and family members and see what they’re doing. Take up a solo hobby that you’ve always wanted to try – it’s far less expensive to start crafting or to read great literature for example than it is to gamble.

You gamble because it seems like the only way out of your financial problems. Sometimes, when you are already in a financial pickle, you may try to convince themself that, even though the odds of financial success are pretty slim when it comes to gambling, it at least has some chance of getting you out of a jam. If you don’t do something, then you’re just going to sink financially anyway.

The problem here is that, if you have the resources to gamble, you have the resources to at least rearrange your financial state so that you’re not immediately drowning in debt. Once you’ve stabilized a little bit, you have a great opportunity to start looking for better long term solutions. Try reading books like The Total Money Makeover or Your Money or Your Life to get some ideas on how to turn your situation around and build a better life.

Step #5 – Get Sincerely Involved with Group Support

Many people struggling with addictions of all kinds feel very alone in their battle. Often, they’re the only one in their immediate social structure that is caught in the throes of gambling, so they often have feelings of secrecy or a strong sense that the people around them don’t understand the powerful draw of gambling.

That’s the reason why a supportive community of fellow recovering gamblers can be an incredible benefit to those who are trying to overcome a gambling addiction. It’s a group of people struggling with the same exact things, people who understand the struggles, can share tips, and can applaud the successes.

The most prolific group for recovering gamblers is Gambers Anonymous, which offers a ton of resources for people struggling with gambling addiction. There are meetings in many cities and towns, where people can get together and support each other as they resist that siren’s call.

Groups like this work really well for some and don’t work as well for others. Regardless of where you find yourself, it’s well worth your time to at least give such a group a shot and see if it clicks for you. The value it can bring into your life is tremendous.

Step #6 – Practice Postponement

One incredibly useful coping strategy for any type of addiction is postponement. It is incredibly good at helping you get through those moments when the temptation is strongest.

It’s simple. Whenever you have an urge to gamble, tell yourself that instead of gambling right now, you’ll gamble next week instead. Look for reasons why it would be better to gamble next week instead of now – maybe you’ll have more time or something like that.

Whatever reason you come up with, the real reason for postponement is to convince you to back away from the ledge. You may be postponing that gambling event in your mind, but what you’re actually doing is buying yourself several days for your more rational side to kick in and reflect on that urge to gamble.

Any length of postponement will work. Even an hour can work for some people, as that single hour can give you enough time to rethink your desire to gamble.

This is pretty similar to one of the tactics I used to break some of my own poor spending habits. I used something I called the “thirty day rule” when I wanted to buy something that I couldn’t really afford or justify. I’d put the item back and then agree to buy it in thirty days if I still wanted it at that point.

What I found is that when the thirty days were up, I often didn’t want that item any more. In those thirty days, I had come to realize that I didn’t really need the item after all.

Postponement often works the exact same way. During that postponement period, you’ll often discover that gambling won’t really give you the things you want anyway, so you’ll lose the strong motivation to do it.

Step #7 – Build Out Your Social Network

As Jim Rohn put it so well, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” If you surround yourself with people who have addictive personalities, you’ll find it easier to give into addictions. If you surround yourself with people who gamble, you’re much more likely to gamble.

The best way to counteract that is to simply start building out your social network. Focus on building stronger friendships with people you know that don’t gamble. Get involved in the things that you have in common with them and make a conscious effort to spend more time with them.

For the other people in your life, particularly those who may have a problem with gambling, make an honest effort to seek out non-gambling activities with them.

The goal here is to seek out people and activities and social situations that don’t involve gambling in any way. The more you fill your life with things that have nothing to do with gambling, the less likely you are to find room or desire for gambling in your life.

As with all of the other items on this list, it is never going to be a guaranteed fix, but it certainly can be a major piece of the puzzle.

Final Thoughts

A gambling addiction is pernicious and nasty. It drains your finances, feeds on hope, and leaves you with damaged relationships. It can bury you in debt and leave you in despair.

There is hope, however, and it starts with recognizing that you do have a problem. Taking the steps above can lead you down a path away from gambling and toward a brighter future for you and the people you love the most.

If you feel like you might be a gambling addict and want one action point to take away from this article, it’s this. 1-800-522-4700 The people who will pick up the phone really can help.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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