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What triggers the urge to gamble?

By Samantha Hayes (clinical psychology registrar) & Dr Anastasia Hronis (clinical psychologist)

Do you find that some days the urge to gamble might be stronger than others?

That some days the urge to gamble might be stronger than others? Maybe it’s the weekend, or it’s your lunch break on pay day. Maybe it’s when you withdraw money from the ATM. Maybe it’s during Friday night footy, or after having a couple of drinks with your friends. These could all be situations that trigger the urge or desire to gamble.

A trigger is something in your life that has the potential to set off a reaction that is similar to how you have reacted in the past. It is often a cue that is related to our habits and routines that we develop over time.

A trigger can be developed from repeating the same behaviours in the same environment over time.

For example, you may have gambled every pay day, and therefore when pay day comes around again, you continue to get urges to gamble.

The development of a trigger creates a neurological pathway in the brain, where a set of factors are associated with an outcome (e.g., pay day becomes associated with gambling). The brain then holds on to these factors and every time a similar situation occurs, it triggers you to respond in the same way as before. The more we repeat this pattern (e.g., gambling on pay day), the stronger, faster, and more automatic that pathway in the brain becomes.

The brain can be triggered by all sorts of things, including sights, sounds, taste, textures, people, places or feelings.

These can then evoke thoughts, feelings or urges. For example, maybe the sound of a jackpot may make it too tempting to walk past the gaming room, or an ad for the footy makes you want to pull out your phone to place a bet.

Even when you haven’t gambled in a while, these triggers can still lead to the same desire or urge to gamble. For example, returning to your local pub or attending a sporting match after a long period away, may signal your brain to react and reactivate this pattern of behaviour.

Recognising the situations or factors that make you more likely to gamble is an important step on your journey to cutting down or quitting. It is important to understand that our triggers create instinctive and potentially impulsive responses that can be difficult to ignore.

Some triggers may be more difficult to manage than others.

There are also some other factors that may make your triggers harder to manage such as stress, alcohol, substances, or emotional distress.

We cannot always avoid our triggers so developing strategies to help manage can be beneficial. Write out a list of your triggers, to help you build awareness of what they are. When those situations occur, the first step may be stopping whatever you are doing - physically stop yourself and pause, even just for a moment. This can create the smallest of changes to your behaviour.

  • Take a breath
    Taking a deep breath can help you to decide whether this is an urge you want to respond to or not. Observe what is happening for you – are there thoughts, feelings or urges that have been triggered.
  • Proceed
    Make a decision of how to proceed based off your goals and values. Sometimes, just taking a pause before we act, can help us to not respond instinctively and allow us to consider if there is another action we can take. While this pause may not be enough to reduce the urge, there are also other strategies that you can utilise such as urge surfing, mindfulness, engaging in other activities to distract yourself or going for a walk to clear your head.

It may also be possible to challenge your thoughts that may be associated with these triggers. As we experience situations that triggered us in the past, and we do not engage in the same behaviours that we previously did, we reduce the strength of our triggers. We start to build alternative pathways in the brain, and reduce the strength of previous associations (e.g., reduce the automatic activation of gambling on pay day). We start to recognise that while a trigger may lead us to want to gamble, we can build the capacity to resist the urges and engage in alternative actions.

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.


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