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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Overcoming Grief Gambling

Recent stories in the news about former San Diego mayor, Maureen O'Connor, have brought to light the importance of getting help for grief gambling.  According to news reports, Ms. O'Connor gambled more than a billion dollars of her own money as well as money she embezzled from her foundation due to a combination of grief gambling, which is a syndrome that is more common than most people realize, and a medical condition that she was contending with at the time.  According to news reports, Ms. O'Connor started grief gambling after her husband and other people close to her died.

What is Grief Gambling?
Grief gambling is a compulsive and addictive form of gambling.  It usually occurs among people, especially the elderly, who have had a lot of losses and who haven't learned healthy ways of dealing with their grief.

Rather than dealing with their feelings about their losses, people who engage in grief gambling use it as an escape to avoid emotions that are uncomfortable for them.  Generally speaking, they don't go through the usual mourning process because they avoid feelings that are uncomfortable for them.  Grief gambling can occur at any age, but it often occurs among the elderly because they've sustained the losses of so many people in their lives.

Unlike excessive drinking or drug abuse, where there are usually signs of impairment, grief gambling is easier to hide.  People who engage in grief gambling can sit in front of their computers and gamble away thousands of dollars or, as in the case of Ms. O'Connor, more than a billion dollars, in less time than most people would imagine.  They can maintain their secret life of gambling for a while--until, inevitably, they must face the consequences of their losses because these games are always stacked in favor of "the house" and the odds are against the person gambling.

Overcoming Grief Gambling
Compassion Instead of Criticism For People Who Have Problems With Addictive Behavior
While it's true that people who engage in irresponsible or illegal activities must face the consequences of their behavior, I believe that, rather than judging people who are caught in the grip of addictive behavior, we need to have compassion for them.  While it might be hard to understand how someone could get him or herself into a predicament where s/he gamble away a child's college fund or the family's life savings, it's important to not to be judgmental.

What Are the Consequences of Grief Gambling?
People who engage in grief gambling to escape feeling their grief have been known to file for bankruptcy.  Marriages are ruined, and jobs are lost due to this form of gambling.  Most people who engage in grief gambling don't engage in sociopathic activities to continue gambling.  But there have been other cases where individuals, caught in the grip of this addictive behavior, have engaged in "white collar" crime and other illegal activities to feed their gambling habit.

Grief Gambling and Denial
You might ask how a sane person could allow themselves to get caught up in such addictive behavior.  This is a complex subject, but one important factor is the psychological defense mechanism of denial.  Most people who are caught up in grief gambling know that it's only a matter of time before they have to face the consequences of their behavior, but denial keeps them from fully coming to grips with this.  Whether they tell themselves, "I'll just do it one more time, and then I'll stop" or "I'll stop after the next big win," denial keeps them going. 

The Psychological "Rewards" of Grief Gambling
The online games are designed to be compelling with psychologically-rewarding intermittent rewards for online gamblers.  Playing these games also stimulates the dopamine receptors in the brain, which also helps to make it addictive.  For grief gamblers who go to the casinos, the casinos reward "high rollers" with free hotel rooms, expensive meals, and just about whatever they want to keep them gambling.  They're made to feel very special.

Getting Help:  Psychotherapy to Deal with Grief
As I've mentioned in other blog posts, we're hard wired for attachment, not loss.  Needless to say, losing someone you love or, worse still, multiple losses of loved ones, is very difficult.  It's understandable that no one would want to go through the mourning process if he or she had a choice. But, unfortunately, loss is part of life, whether we like it or not or whether we feel we're ready to deal with it or not.

Aside from being at risk for addictive behavior, unresolved bereavement  can put you at risk for other psychological problems, like depression or an anxiety disorder.  Unresolved bereavement can also compromise your immune system, putting you at risk for medical problems.

When you work with a skilled psychotherapist, who has experience helping clients through their grief, you learn to mourn the loss of your loved one so that you can begin the healing process and you no longer feel overwhelmed by your grief.   You'll learn to develop healthy coping skills, rather than turning to grief gambling or other unhealthy activities.

Mourning is a process, and the process is different for each person.   In a society that tends not to discourage dealing with uncomfortable feelings, well-meaning people will often tell you to "just get over it."  But no one can tell you how long it should take you to mourn your loss.  With the help of a skilled therapist with whom you feel a rapport, you can get through this difficult time with the emotional support and new coping skills you'll learn in therapy.

Getting Help:  Gamblers Anonymous http://gamblersanonymous.org
For people with gambling problems, I often recommend that they attend the 12 Step program, Gamblers Anonymous.  At Gamblers Anonymous, people usually find supportive group members, many of them who have been successful at abstaining from gambling for many years.  Other group members are at various stages in their recovery.  The link to the G.A. website provides a list of meetings all over the U.S.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.  I have helped many clients to heal from bereavement issues.  I also have an expertise in working with addictions.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006.