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Gambling Addiction Trauma and PTSD

The Connection Between Trauma and Gambling


In order to heal we must peel back the layers of our addiction

Those of us who are struggling with gambling addiction, know how dangerous, destructive and overwhelming it can be. Many of us are left with mounting debts, damaged relationships, high levels of stress and fear about how we can overcome the addiction. However, to begin our journey to recovery, we must peel back the layers of our addiction or gambling problem and deal with the underlying causes. This is where we might discover that we have unresolved trauma.

According to Diane Young, addiction and trauma specialist at South Pacific Private, research has shown that there are links between gambling and trauma and/or stressful life events in childhood and adulthood. 

“Stressful events such as marriage breakdown, financial difficulties, and relational difficulties are often linked to problem gamblers,” she explains. “Not everyone who has experienced trauma becomes a gambling addict, but most gambling addicts have experienced trauma of some sort - whether it is from their childhood, or their teens years or in their adult years as a one-off traumatic event,” she adds. 

“More often clients use gambling to medicate their feelings of abandonment, neglect, abuse and trauma, and it is only when it becomes out of control that they seek help. To recover, clients need to address their trauma and unresolved life experiences to enable them to walk into recovery and live without the need to gamble.”

In fact, one UK study looked at more than 3000 men, aged 18 to 64 years, and discovered that those who were reported problem or probable pathological gamblers had a high dependence on drugs and alcohol, and were more likely to have experienced trauma and stressful events in their lives. The problem and pathological gamblers were more likely to have experienced abuse and violence in the home as a child, and as an adult, they were more likely to have experienced a relationship breakdown, violence in the home or at their workplace, job loss, homelessness, money problems and criminal convictions.

Young says that gambling, as with all addictions, numbs pain and discomfort. “That could be from past traumas or present-day problems and challenges,” she says. “When the gambler is in ‘their behaviour, or their disease’ they are oblivious to anything else at that moment.”

She says that the feelings that lead to gambling addiction are those of powerlessness at one end of the spectrum and invincibility or power at the other. “Gambling is one addiction where the reward is uncertain. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter the brain releases during enjoyable activities. It is also known to increase and be heightened when the reward is uncertain. This explains why the gambling ‘high’ enhances the risk-taking behaviour of the gambler,” says Young. “This repeated dopamine ‘hit’ can work in a counter-intuitive way so losing money becomes a trigger for the gambler who chases the rewarding release of dopamine as result of the loss almost as much as winning does. This continues the risk-taking behaviour.”

Although anyone can develop a gambling addiction, research shows that the average age is around mid-30s. Additionally genetics and those with relatives who are compulsive gamblers are more likely to develop a gambling addiction as opposed to those with no family history. “Studies have also shown that 95 per cent of people with gambling disorder also meet the criteria for alcohol use and substance use disorder, mood and anxiety disorders and personality disorders and generally gambling disorder is present in 4.2 per cent of men and 2.9 per cent of women,” says Young. “Veterans also have higher rates of gambling disorder and this correlates to the co-occurring mental health conditions such as PTSD, substance use disorder and suicidality.”

At South Pacific Private, we’re committed to helping people recover from compulsive gambling by addressing the underlying drivers of the compulsion to take financial risks. “The client is gently guided to become aware of what in their past has contributed to their addiction: where did it come from; how have I allowed it to take hold; and most importantly, how can I recover? We address the trauma and abuse in their past so they can begin to functionally recreate their lives and live with freedom from their addiction, their discomfort and their trauma,” says Young.

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