A few months ago, my wife and I went on a research trip to a couple of amusement arcades in Tramore. I wanted to get a feel for the experience of sitting at a 'one-armed bandit' for a while. Despite that fact that I grew up on the Meath Road in Bray (100 metres from the prom) and, later, moved to Lahinch in my teens, the gambling sections of the arcades had never held any appeal for me. I would play video games or hang out with my friends as they pumped their pocket-money into poker machines on wintry west-coast nights. While I developed many unhealthy habits in my teens, gambling wasn't one of them.
So, we gave ourselves a 20 quid limit each and set about playing some of the machines (poker and slots). As I came to my final 10 cent stake on one of the slot machines, five "7s" appeared before my eyes. I had won the princely sum of €75 (much to the disdain of the poor woman beside me). We promptly left the building and our 'free money' paid for dinner.
As an addiction counsellor, working with clients who have gambling problems, I always ask about a 'Big Win' that stands out in their minds. For some people it can be tens of thousands, for others it can be in the hundreds. For some, it is the time they turned 50 pence into £10 at the race-track as a young child, The 'Big Win' is important as it is often the 'evidence' (or 'logic') that continues to drive the person to gamble, even when they know, deep down, that they cannot gamble their way out of the financial (and/or emotional) hole they are in.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is considered to be one of the most effective treatment approaches for problem gambling, focuses, in part, on disputing irrational beliefs. So, for example, if a person was getting treatment for anxiety or panic attacks, and they had an intense fear of fainting in public places (this is very common), the therapist might explain that this is impossible as fainting is caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure, whereas the Fight or Flight response causes blood pressure to rise. Quite often, by empowering the person with the knowledge that fainting is not a realistic scenario, anxiety levels can be reduced.
Unfortunately, with gambling, the person usually has hard, indisputable evidence, that gambling their way out of difficulty is a viable option. They have done it (to some extent) in the past. They have clear memories of the 'Big Win' along with other wins and 'winning streaks'. The fact that it is extremely unlikely to play out that way, gets overridden by this 'evidence' - especially when a person is desperate, anxiety levels are high and their ability to think clearly is impaired (as it is for all of us in stressful situations). The 'Big Win' also gives that sweet hit of dopamine (the same neurotransmitter that is released when using cocaine). Just like with cocaine, and other drugs, a tolerance develops and you can find yourself needing to gamble more frequently and with larger amounts of money.
If we go back to my measly €75 jackpot on the one-arm bandit, it certainly isn't anything to write home about. However, it was a payout at odds of 750/1. I now have 'evidence', stored in my memory for all time, that it is possible for me to turn 10 cent into €75. 'Logically', this means that I have the ability to turn €1 into €750 or €10 into €7500 . . . and so on. If I were to combine that 'logic' with an emotionally aroused state (stress/anxiety), where I am less likely to be able to control my impulses and make rational decisions - along with a potentially addictive, dopamine-producing activity, like gambling - it's pretty easy to see how I might start thinking that this could be the answer to some (or all) of my problems.
Does this mean that the 'Big Win' will keep a person gambling problematically forever? Of course not. The reality is that a person with a gambling problem has, invariably, had many wins along the way. Unfortunately, one of the things that separates people with gambling problems from non-problematic gamblers, is the person's inability to walk away with their winnings. This needs to be the focus of the conversation - because this is where 'logic' goes out the window. When a person is chasing their losses, they have an overwhelming need to get their money back. Unfortunately, the same person will usually gamble away their winnings, because they see it as 'free money' or 'the bookie's money'. Usually, clients will have experienced countless incidents of this. I always ask clients, 'What are the chances that you would leave the bookies shop (or casino/arcade), if you won enough money to clear all of your debts?". The answer is consistently: 'Practically zero'. This is because a problem gambler is not addicted to winning money - they are addicted to the gambling experience (which only occasionally involves winning money) . Having money just allows the person more time to get that lovely dopamine hit and self-sooth from Life's problems.
If you find yourself chasing that 'Big Win' and the feelings that came with it, just remember that money is the least valuable thing you can gamble with. A gambling problem puts your mental/physical health and relationships at risk. If you are concerned about your gambling and the impact that it is having on your life, don't suffer in silence. Help is available.
Barry Grant, CEO, Problem Gambling Ireland
Barry Grant, Addiction Counsellor, Founder.