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How stress can trigger a gambling relapse

By Dr Anastasia Hronis (clinical psychologist) & Natalie Winiarski (research assistant)

Trying to change our relationship with gambling can be hard. Gambling can be addictive, and the urges to gamble can be strong, especially when we are feeling stressed.

Stress can impact our relationship with gambling in important ways. It can be a huge risk factor for someone deciding to gamble, and it can trigger a relapse back into gambling. It is very important that when we decide we no longer want to gamble, or want to reduce our gambling, that we also think about how we can manage general day-to-day stress.

Stress is a physiological and psychological response that occurs when an individual perceives a real or imagined threat or challenging circumstances. Stress can trigger physiological changes, including the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can leave us feeling worried, tense, irritable and overwhelmed.

Stress is common in everyday life and can be caused by a wide range of factors including work-related pressures, personal relationships, financial issues, health concerns, and other life circumstances. Common signs and symptoms of stress can include increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, muscle tension, irritability, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and sleep disturbances.

It’s impossible for us to never experience any stress in life, and that wouldn’t be a realistic goal for us to work towards. Stress is, after all, a natural, emotional response to challenging situations and can help us effectively address those situations. While we can’t get rid of stress completely, fortunately, there are many ways we can learn to manage stress.

Here are three strategies to help you manage stress in your everyday life to help reduce the impact it can have on the urge to gamble, as well as prevent lapses and relapses:

1. Find the Joy

For all of us, it is important to accumulate feelings of joy, and generally positive emotions. We want to do things in our day that we enjoy, simply for the purpose of enjoyment. Doing these things helps us achieve an overall sense of balance in regulating our day-to-day emotions and can relieve the impact stress can have on us.

These might include activities such as spending time with friends, watching a movie, going to the beach, getting a massage, watching a comedy show or listening to music, going outside for a ’nature break’ or some exercise. However, it may take some trial and error to find what works best for you.

Each time you do something nice for yourself, the brain releases endorphins and dopamine (dose of happiness) which not only reduces stress now, but also increases our resilience to manage stress in the future.

Finding joy in life is an ongoing journey. If you don’t know where to start, a first step can be to make a note whenever you’re feeling happy or reflect back at the end of the day to see what made you feel good. Ask yourself ‘Who was I with?’ or ‘What was I doing?’ and see how you can add more of those moments/activities to your day.

2. Build a Sense of Achievement

Stress can make us feel overwhelmed and feel like we are losing control. However, building a sense of achievement can be a powerful tool to combat these feelings. A sense of achievement is the satisfaction we feel when we make progress and achieve something we put our mind to.

When we accomplish a task or a goal, no matter how small, dopamine is released (the happy neurotransmitter) and this leads us to feel proud of ourselves, confident in our abilities and build a sense of control over our lives. These feelings can help us build positive well-being and confidence to cope with stress.

When trying to build a sense of accomplishment, it is important that we start with small, realistic and achievable goals, with reasonable time limits. Goals can come from various aspects of our lives, such as fitness goals like running a certain distance, learning a new language or skill, setting career goals, or building your social network.

Practically, you might like to start by writing down your task/goals and then break them into smaller steps by asking yourself ‘What actions do I need to achieve this?’ It is important to start with small manageable steps and progressively build, as each time we achieve something, we are motivated to keep striving for success. For example, if the goal is to run 5km, start with running 500m, then 1km and keep increasing the distance until you reach your goal. Keep a record of your progress, such as tracking the hours you’ve spent running for the week, or the number of sales you made at work, as maintaining a log allows you to visualise your progress and can be a powerful motivator.

Ultimately, building a sense of accomplishment can equip you with the skills to better manage stress, and reduce the impact stress has on your gambling.

3. Plan for How to Cope

If you know that a stressful situation is coming up, think about ways in which you can cope ahead of time. This could include identifying the people in your life you can turn to for support, prioritising yourself through self-care and downtime during stressful periods, using professional support, or creating a stress tool kit with activities that help you relax such as a favourite book, soothing music or keeping a stress ball around.

Coping with stress is a dynamic process and what works for one person may not work for another. You may like to experiment with different strategies or after experiencing a stressful situation, reflect on what helped you cope in that moment, or what has worked in the past. Regularly reflecting and revisiting your stress-coping plan can help you refine its effectiveness over time.

If you have had a relapse, remember to be kind to yourself. Changing our relationship with gambling can be hard. Thinking about what may have triggered a relapse and what strategies we can put in place can help avoid this happening in the future can help in the process.

All of this can be difficult, but you do not have to do so alone. For more support on this topic or any gambling issue you might want to talk about, call Gambler’s Help 1800 858 858 or visit our Find Support page for more options.


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