Research suggests that childhood trauma increases the likelihood of future addictions, including gambling. This gambling may become pathological. The types of childhood trauma that were experienced in pathological gamblers include violence, sexual abuse and loss. For instance, Jacobs (2008) conducted research demonstrating that childhood trauma greatly increased the risk of addictions in later life.
It has been hypothesized that gambling helps the individual cope with their childhood trauma through the psychological process known as DISSOCIATION (whilst intensely involved with gambling the individual ‘goes into another world’, blissfully disconnecting, for a time, from painful reality).
Pathological gambling is closely connected to impulse and control disorders; indeed, such disorders frequently express themselves in conditions linked to childhood trauma (such as borderline personality disorder).Pathological gambling may involve:
– an overwhelming preoccupation with gambling
– lying to others to cover up the extent of the gambling
– a failure to stop gambling even when the individual strongly wants to do so
The profile of the pathological gambler is often a complicated one as the individual often suffers from an array of other psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety (Abbot et al., 1999).
Studies estimate that about 2% (although the figure varies somewhat from study to study) of the U.S. population suffers from pathological gambling.
Factors other than childhood trauma which make an individual more at risk of developing pathological gambling inclue:
– being male
– being young
– having other mental health problems
Polusny et al (1995) suggested that addictive behaviours help the individual avoid both the memories of their childhood trauma together with the deeply painful feelings and emotions associated with it. Therefore, because activities such as gambling reduce the emotional distress connected with childhood trauma, the individual is driven to repeat the gambling experience again and again, due to the reward it provides of reducing psychological pain (this is technically known as negative reinforcement). It is my contention that, on some level, the benefits of reducing psychological pain must outweigh the financial losses; as losses can be enormous this gives some indication of the level of psychological pain the individual is in and the strength of the internal drive to reduce it. Of course, this can only be helpful in short-term bursts and, overall, it goes without saying that the individual’s pain and suffering are compounded.
THE GENERAL THEORY OF ADDICTION:
This model proposes that there is an underlying biological state (ie an abnormal resting arousal state) together with a psychological state which is painful for the individual (for example, by creating a feeling of unbearable anxiety) often caused by childhood trauma to which activities such as gambling provide an ‘escape route’ (temporarily). The individual becomes addicted to this short-term relief (although often he will not realize this is the fundamental reason he continues to gamble, the drive frequently being unconscious).
Addictions which alleviate extreme stress in this manner are known as MALADAPTIVE COPING STRATEGIES; they are, essentially, learned defences against UNRESOLVED TRAUMA-RELATED ANXIETY (Henry, 1996).
Studies have revealed that up to 80% of pathological gamblers have suffered extreme childhood trauma. Further studies suggest that the more severe and protracted the trauma, the higher the risk is that the individual will develop pathological gambling behaviour and the YOUNGER the individual will be when he starts to use gambling as a coping strategy. Indeed, I myself started playing fruit machines at the age of twelve (many places weren’t strict about the age of the person playing them in the late 1970s) and I can remember quite distinctly the pleasant relief it gave to my already depressed and anxious emotional state.
It seems likely, then, that childhood trauma which remains unresolved is likely to elevate the risk of pathological gambling in individuals. When treating pathological gamblers, therefore, it is important to assess the degree of trauma the individual might have suffered and to consider appropriate psychological interventions which could be implemented to help the individual resolve the trauma. It is the psychological pain which underlies the compulsion to gamble which it is necessary to address.
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Best wishes, David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).