Understanding the Phases of Compulsive Gambling

Understanding the Phases of Compulsive Gambling

Understanding the Phases of Compulsive Gambling

Understanding the Phases of Compulsive GamblingGambling is a form of recreation that’s turned into a multi-billion-dollar industry in the U.S.  In fact, the allure and excitement of gambling is so powerful that more money is spent on it than many other forms of entertainment combined – including sporting events, video games and movie tickets. Unfortunately, this same allure also makes it a form of recreation that can easily turn into an addiction.  According to the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), during any given year approximately 6 million to 9 million people in the U.S. will struggle with a gambling problem.

While some individuals can gamble and know when to cut their losses (or wins) and stop, others cannot.  They become trapped in a vicious cycle that involves three phases – winning, losing and desperation.  These phases were identified by the late Dr. Robert Custer, a psychiatrist who was a well-known and highly respected pioneer in the treatment of compulsive gambling. Understanding these phases helps shed light on why the addiction develops and why it can be so difficult to overcome.

Phase 1 – Winning

If you’ve ever been to a Las Vegas casino, you’ve no doubt observed – and possibly even experienced for yourself – the thrill of winning a lump sum of money.  Whether it was a few hundred dollars in quarters from a slot machine or five figures at the black jack table, the feeling in that moment is often nothing short of exhilaration.

For those individuals prone to – or already in the throes of – a gambling addiction, a win can quickly cloud their judgment.  It makes them feel unrealistically hopeful, powerful and unstoppable.  All they can think about is winning again and, usually, winning even more the next time.  Rather than savoring the moment and leaving with their earnings, the urge to play “one more game” is just too hard to resist. An all-too-common pattern is to put all the money that was just won back into the current game – or into a game with even higher stakes.

Like a drug addict who needs increasing amounts of a substance to get high each time, compulsive gamblers need to keep increasing the stakes in order to maintain the thrill and excitement.  Of course, this route also increases their risk of losing – which is inevitable at some point.  This leads to the second phase of compulsive gambling – losing.

Phase 2 – Losing

When it comes to losing, compulsive gamblers often bare a keen resemblance to those who fish for sport.  In other words, they keep their spirits buoyed, their optimism high, and the attention of anyone who’s interested, by frequently boasting about previous wins.  For those who fish, it’s the (often embellished) story about the record-breaking bass or salmon or trout they caught in such and such a year.  For compulsive gamblers, it’s the big win at craps, the high-dollar payout from the slots, or the lucrative cash they raked in on that memorable day at the horse races.

The reality, however, is that they’re no longer winning. They’re either winning infrequently – racking up far more losses than wins – or on a losing streak that’s rapidly gaining momentum like a runaway train.

During the losing phase, the following are likely to occur:

  • They become less social and gamble alone
  • They’re preoccupied with thoughts about their next chance to gamble – and the details surrounding it
  • They’re concocting plans for how they’ll come up with the money they need to gamble again – and their plans may not always be legal.
  • Previous wins and bets pale significantly in comparison to the one that’s ahead
  • Everything else – friends, family, obligations, etc.  – take a back seat (at least mentally and often entirely) – to their need and fierce determination to win again

As the losing phase continues or gets worse, compulsive gamblers:

  • Begin telling lies to those closest to them
  • Beg, borrow, or even steal to fund their next bet, incurring even more debt – not to mention inevitable ill will from those who lend them money (and are often never paid back) and potential legal problems if they’ve obtained money via criminal methods.
  • Start “chasing their losses” in a determined (and usually futile) attempt to win back at least some (if not all) of the money they’ve lost.  Sadly, when people start gambling to recoup losses, they’re even more likely to lose due to poor judgment and hasty decisions that so often accompany a growing sense of desperation.
  • Feel as if their life is imploding as it slowly becomes more and more unmanageable.  What started as a way to have fun is now causing serious problems and consuming their life. They begin to deteriorate emotionally, becoming more withdrawn, anxious, restless, and short-tempered.  They may pick fights with their spouse, have conflicts at work and struggle with insomnia.
  • Deny the gravity of their situation – of both their gambling problem and the serious impact it’s having on their relationships, their finances, their health and their career.  The degree of their denial is often mind-boggling to those aware of the situation.

The losing phase is when things can really start to get out of control for a compulsive gambler.  Like a heroin addict in search of his next fix – and willing to do whatever it takes to get it – the compulsive gambler focuses intently on his bet.  And, just like the drug addict who can’t satisfy his craving soon enough, desperation – the third phase of compulsive gambling – begins to set in as the losing streak continues and / or debts from previous losses are ominously hanging overhead like a thick, dark cloud.

Phase 3 – Desperation

The third stage of compulsive gambling is desperation.  Like other addictions, when the consequences of one’s behavior and poor choices add up over time, the results are sometimes catastrophic.  Not only that, but the cycle becomes so vicious that it’s like being caught in barbed wire – the more they fight the deeper the barbs sink in – and the more scared and desperate they become.  The desire to win back everything they’ve lost – no matter the cost – becomes even greater. This leads to more foolish decisions, which often include increasing the number (and amount) of the bets that are made.

Although illegal means to fund the next bet sometimes start to occur during the losing phase, some compulsive gamblers are even more likely to engage in them during the desperation phase.  Like drug addicts, they may steal from family members, friends, their place of work, or from anyone or any place where they think they can get away with it.  They may also engage in other types of criminal activity, such as prostitution or selling drugs and other illegally-obtained items.

Any current life stressors also tend to become much worse during the desperation phase.  Marital problems may spiral downward, resulting in divorce. Health issues are aggravated due to the stress of the addiction and its consequences.  Coping with problems at work or school become more challenging than ever.  The price of addiction is high – and may include the loss of everything one holds dear.  If other addictions are present – such as alcoholism or drug addiction – they’ll almost always become worse once desperation sets in. Since alcohol and drugs also have a negative impact on one’s decision-making and outlook, they intensify and complicate the vicious cycle.

During the desperation phase, compulsive gamblers often experience significant guilt and remorse for the mess they’ve created.  Some, however, take no personal responsibility and blame others – their greedy or unsupportive spouse; their unfulfilling job; their unsatisfactory income; the family member or friend who first invited them to the casino or the races.  Sadly, the external blame ends up alienating the very people whom compulsive gamblers so desperately need for support.

Another eserious problem that occurs far too often during the desperation phase is suicidal thoughts and actions.  When the financial hole has gotten so deep and dark, relationships have been destroyed, and one’s career or reputation has been lost or damaged beyond repair, overwhelming feelings of hopelessness can easily set in.  As the light at the end of the tunnel fades away, suicide often seems like the only solution – and the only escape from unbearable pain.

There Is Hope…

The three phases of compulsive gambling certainly paint a grim picture of how bad things can get.  If you’re reading this and recognizing yourself – along with a gnawing feeling in the pit 9of your stomach or sense of resentment and resistance – please don’t stop.  Those feelings are there for a very good reason and must not be ignored – for your sake (and the sake of those who love you as well).

No matter how bad things may seem today, or how hopeless the future may look, or which of the three stages you’re currently in, there is hope. As with all addictions, treatment is available for compulsive gambling.  There are treatment centers – both residential and outpatient programs – throughout the country.  There are also support groups, such as Gamblers Anonymous (GA) and countless others that can help you on your journey to recovery.

If you’re not sure where to turn or how to find a treatment center, you can always call the NCPG’s national hotline at 1-800-522-4700.  This is a confidential hotline with trained staff available to take your call 24/7.  If you are having thoughts of suicide, please call the national suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (also a 24/7 number), call 911, contact a local mental health agency, or go to the nearest hospital ER.

The sooner you get help for your compulsive gambling, the better.  But don’t ever think that it’s too late.  No matter how close you are to the brink of despair, there is hope. Help is available and recovery is absolutely possible.

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