By Jodie Nealley, Intervention and Recovery Support Coordinator, Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling
There are many tools someone in recovery from gambling can have in their recovery tool box. An understanding of relapse prevention, and the development of a relapse prevention plan is among these tools and is a good start toward maintaining recovery. Learning about relapse prevention is important for those of us with gambling disorders, those who love us and those who treat us.
Studies indicate that the highest risk of relapse is often within the first 3 months of recovery. (Hunt et al., 1971). But let’s be clear: Relapse can happen to anyone in recovery from a gambling problem whether they have been in recovery for a week or for 30 years.
John was a regular member of Gamblers Anonymous for years. He felt like he was ‘working the program’ and doing everything right. Then he stopped going to a few meetings a week and just went to one. John was feeling strong in his recovery and felt like he understood his past gambling behavior better. ‘I had it under control’ he said. A week came when things in John’s life became very stressful. He thought it would be alright to visit a casino and play a few hands of poker. He lost all of the money he had brought with him. John realized he was experiencing that same compulsive feelings he had remembered from gambling years before. He was aware enough to go home and tell his wife he had gambled. He returned to meetings and has renewed his commitment to working the steps and being honest with himself and others about his gambling. John is an example of a person with a gambling disorder who did not have a plan in place to deal with his craving to gamble.
There are many ways one help prevent relapse. Some strategies that have been successful in preventing relapse, and warding off the craving to gamble include:
Become aware of the warning signs and learn what to do when you recognize them. Here are a few examples:
Feeling nothing can be solved
Immature to be happy
Progressive loss of daily structure
Periods of depression
Irregular attendance at meeting
Development of an “I don’t care” attitude
Dissatisfaction with life
Thoughts of social gambling
Discontinuing all treatment
Feeling you can control your gambling
Once you learn to recognize your warning signs, you can come up with the coping skills needed to deal with them.
- One coping skill is understanding your urges and cravings and learning how to deal with them. For example you can label the urge – ‘I am depressed so I want to gamble’
- Then you detach from that urge by doing what is known as urge surfing. You do this by using positive ‘I’ statements – “I am in recovery. I know that I cannot gamble. I do not want to lose all I have gained because of recovery”.
- You recall the negative consequences of your gambling “I lost my house because of gambling. I am bankrupt because of my gambling”.
- You then recall your recovery goals – “Going to meetings and seeing my therapist is what has helped me stay in recovery”.
- You remember the positive benefits of those goals. “I have money in the bank again. I live in a really nice apartment now.”
- And then you breathe deeply and ride the urge as if it was a surfboard.
- The model known as the 4 D’s gives an excellent example of urge surfing:
1. Delay – Since cravings rise and fall like waves, if you can delay a relapse decision for 20 minutes you’ll generally find the cravings dissipate on their own.
2. Distract – Craving time passes more quickly when your are engaged in a distracting activity for a few minutes.
3. Deep breathing – Deep breathing exercises help you maintain calm and purpose when cravings hit and can keep you from making rash decisions.
4. Drink a glass of water – Drinking a glass of water relaxes you and sets your purpose. Imagine your cravings as like a runaway train gathering momentum to a disaster. Simple activities like taking a moment to drink a glass of water are like brakes that slow that train!1
The most important piece is to recognize that recovery is a precious thing. Those of us in recovery need to nurture it, recognize its value, and plan for those times we forget just how precious it really is.
Whatever tool you use is the one that works for you. Relapse Prevention Planning is just one of many tools possible. Find the one that fits you best.
The Massachusetts Council on Gaming and Health offers a 24/7 Helpline: 1-800-426-1234
You can call us 24-hours a day or use our online chat service at www.masscompulsivegambling.org
Someone will always be there to listen to you and to refer you to the resources near where you live. Knowing this Helpline number, knowing where your local self-help meetings are, knowing which therapist been trained in counseling those with gambling disorders is closest to you, are all part of your Relapse Prevention Plan. Take the time today to create the one that works for you!