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Intrusive gambling thoughts and how to manage them

By: Aimee Oliveri (Clinical Psychologist) & Dr Anastasia Hronis (Clinical Psychologist)

One of the most unique human experiences is our ability to think. Humans have thousands of thoughts per day. Sometimes these thoughts might be fleeting, popping in and out of our minds with no major impact, while other times it can be hard to detach from a thought.

For those trying to quit or reduce gambling, it can be common to have a thought such as “what if I just place one more bet”. However, when this thought starts to become more involuntary, persistent, and disruptive, it is known as an intrusive thought. Intrusive thoughts can be highly distressing, and difficult to manage. If you’re experiencing intrusive thoughts about gambling, here are some strategies to help you manage these thoughts more effectively:

1. Recognition

The first step to managing intrusive thoughts is recognition. Intrusive thoughts for people who gamble often revolve around the urge to gamble or the fear of relapse. Examples include thoughts like:

"I know I can win this time if I focus."

"What if this is the big win I've been waiting for?"

“What if I can't control the urge to gamble forever?"

When you notice thoughts like this, especially if they are persisting or causing distress, it can be helpful to acknowledge the thought you are having as it arises, and label it as an intrusive thought. This act alone can improve self-awareness, and place you in a better position to respond to the thought more effectively.

2. Thought diffusion

Next, it can be helpful to practice distancing yourself from your thoughts and reminding yourself that they are nothing more than mental events. This allows us to take a more objective, non-judgemental and detached perspective, otherwise known as “thought diffusion”.

We can practice thought diffusion in a number of ways. We might say out loud "This is just a thought" or "I'm having the thought that..." We could imagine watching the thought pass by, much like observing a leaf floating down a stream. We could also write the thought down on a piece of paper and rip it up. By acknowledging the thought with detachment, the thought tends to lose some of its emotional charge and power, which allows us to respond in a more helpful way.

3. Challenging our thoughts

Another step to manage unwanted intrusive thoughts about gambling, is to try to identify and challenge any irrational or unhelpful beliefs that come to mind. For example, if you're thinking, "I have to gamble to feel better," challenge this belief with evidence to the contrary, such as remembering times when you've managed stress or emotions without gambling.

You can also replace negative gambling-related thoughts with more balanced ones. For instance, you can reframe the thought "I need to gamble" as "I have the ability to cope with stress and emotions without gambling.” This technique is known as cognitive restructuring, and helps adjust our perceptions and interpretations to be more holistic.

4. Urge surfing

Sometimes intrusive thoughts are more persistent when we are experiencing a strong urge. It can be helpful to remind ourselves that no matter how strong an urge is, it will always subside. Moreover, there are things we can do to help shift our focus and endure the discomfort of the urge without acting on it.

For example, we might engage in a distracting activity, such as exercise, reading, or listening to music, reach out to someone, or practice relaxation techniques. Be sure to engage in activities or tasks that are meaningful and align with your values.

5. Manage any triggers

Sometimes intrusive thoughts can be more pronounced when we are in triggering environments or states. It can be helpful to recognise the situations, emotions, or external cues that trigger your gambling-related thoughts, so that you can manage them more effectively when they arise.

For example, if a particular social circle encourages gambling or any other unhelpful behaviours, it may be necessary to limit contact with those individuals, while simultaneously increasing contact with supportive and understanding friends and family. Seeking support from a trained psychologist or therapist can also be particularly helpful during this process.

Navigating intrusive thoughts during the gambling recovery journey can be daunting, but it is possible with effective strategies in place. If you are struggling with gambling, it's important to know that help is available. For more support on this topic or any gambling issue, call Gambler’s Help on 1800 858 858 or visit our Find Support page for more options.

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