Online Habits, including Gambling, on the Rise during Covid-19

When Covid-19 shutdowns began in March, many people were left to their own devices, quite literally.  Many began engaging with their technology in new and different ways, as well as increasing their screen time in general.  When Casinos closed, I’m not sure if you noticed, but there was a change in marketing / advertising, online gambling advertisements seemed to be everywhere and many people started substituting their gambling habits for online activity – online casinos, sports betting, fantasy leagues and even day-trading.  

Throughout history, people have found that applying a wager to the outcome of a contest makes things more interesting. For most of us, making a small wager on a game is fun and harmless. The problem with gambling is the subtle way it gets its hooks into us, changing our behavior, our emotions and our sensibilities. This change can occur slowly or quite rapidly, there are a number of different pathways to developing a problem with gambling.  However over time, if left unchecked, outcomes tend to be the same: damage to relationships, bank accounts, credit ratings, and mental, emotional and physical health. 

It is difficult for people to comprehend that a behaviour like gambling can become addictive, but gambling can become as problematic as any substance, and financially can be more devastating, and very quickly.  When does a behaviour start becoming problematic ?  I like to offer that healthy enthusiasms add to Life, addictions take away from Life.  ‘Problematic’ can be thought of as a matter of degree rather than ‘all or none’.   There are risk factors that indicate a problem is developing, and there are hallmarks that indicate the severity of the problem is increasing.  The more factors people are able to identify with, the greater the likelihood the behaviour is moving towards addiction.  In this transition, people move from liking, to wanting, to needing the behaviour.  Addiction is a process that rewires the brain, it generally develops over time, through repeated exposure to, and engagement with, a robustly rewarding behaviour or substance.  And brains have their own preferences, and vulnerability factors, which is why everyone doesn’t get addicted, or addicted to the same thing.

Hallmarks of Addictive Behaviour, the 3 C’s:

Addictions, whether to substances, or behaviours, consist of 3 hallmarks:  

(1) loss of or impaired Control – people establish limits for themselves, trying to control their engagement with the behaviour, and then aren’t able to abide by their limits, despite their intentions;

(2) continuing to engage in the behaviour in spite of the Consequences – consequences are relative to the person, what is experienced as consequence for one may not be for another. Common consequences include a physical/emotional/mental aftermath.  They also include health, finances, relationship, employment, increasingly risky behaviour – doing things people wouldn’t normally do (lie, steal, cheat)

(3) Cravings and Urges – these are indicators the nervous system is adapting to the behaviour, anticipating it, expecting it, and becoming dependent on it – problem behaviours and substances get wired into the autonomic nervous system, the system beyond our conscious control, beyond willpower.  The body starts to respond as if it needs the behaviour (or substance) to survive, cravings and urges are messengers from the body, getting our attention to get its needs met – think about the urge to relieve yourself, we can ignore these signals for a while, but eventually the system over-rides us.  

Other Common Risk Factors to consider:

Salience, which means importance, it becomes the priority in that person’s life, they adjust their life to accommodate the problem, and they will engage in the behaviour to the neglect of other things in their life.

Mood Modification, the behaviour is used as a consistent method for shifting one’s mood – whether to get high or to tranquilize one’s mood.  In gambling this is referred to as ‘action’ or ‘escape’, different forms of gambling meet different needs.  Slot machines are often a form of escape, while card games are often a form of action/excitement.

Withdrawal symptoms, which commonly look like extreme moodiness, irritability, agitation, headaches, sweats, nausea.

Increased tolerance – needing more and more over time to experience the same effect. This usually involves betting higher sums of money over time;

Conflict/Consequences – can be both intrapsychic (within the individual, knowing they should cut down/ stop, but are  unable to) and interpersonal – other people/activities are being compromised by the behaviour – personal relationships, work/educational lives, other social and recreational pursuits are stopped/sacrificed

Defense Mechanisms – denial, minimizing, justifying, rationalizing, blaming others

Relapse – after a period of abstinence, a return to earlier patterns of the problem behaviour with impaired control and consequences   

Common Signs of a problem with Gambling:

  • Is often pre-occupied with gambling:  planning the next venture, thinking of ways to get money to gamble, re-living past gambling experiences
  • Chasing losses, trying to win back money that’s been lost
  • Chasing wins, trying to replicate the past
  • Repeated, unsuccessful attempts to cut down, or stop gambling
  • Irritability or agitation when cutting down or stopping gambling
  • Using gambling as a coping strategy – a way to manage feelings, like stress, anxiety, sadness, or to escape life for a while; or to add excitement, stimulation to life
  • Needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money, in order to feel satisfied, or excited
  • Covering up, lying, hiding the gambling
  • Has jeopardized or lost a significant relationship, job, or educational opportunity because of gambling

If you are concerned about your own, or someone else’s online gambling habits, I have a contract with the BC Responsible & Problem Gambling Program which allows me to offer free counselling support to anyone impacted by problem gambling. Feel free to check in with me, you are not alone, and I’m here to help. https://www.bcresponsiblegambling.ca/getting-help/find-counsellor/shannon-simms