The focus of a person’s thoughts or cognitions changes throughout a gambling session. These changes give us insight into what is keeping them playing and why a person may go back to the machines time and time again – even after heavy losses.
Before a gambling session, typical thoughts might focus on money and usually include ‘I’m due for a win’ and ‘I’ll just put in $50 and see how I go’.
During a gambling session the focus of the individual’s thoughts continue to be about money; these cognitions are about capitalising on wins: ‘I’m winning a little, this machine is going to pay – I better keep playing’ or chasing losses: ‘the feature has to be coming soon – I have put so much money in!’.
Interestingly, the content of people’s thinking changes after a gambling session, their thoughts focus on the self. That is, if a person is ‘up’ after a session they have positive thoughts about themselves and their self-esteem is protected. However, if a person has lost money during a session, they might have self-depreciating thoughts, which may include thoughts like ‘I am an idiot’ and ‘How did I let that happen’ and ‘I am out of control’. These thoughts are usually accompanied by feelings of guilt and anxiety, feelings that categorise what has become known as a ‘gambling hangover’.
In this way, a person struggling with problem gambling might find that their self-esteem, mood and thoughts about themselves are controlled by a microprocessor inside the poker machine. Given that a player will always in the long-term lose more money than they win, they will spend the majority of their gambling life thinking about themselves negatively and feeling guilty or anxious.
The problems associated with gambling therefore can extend much further than financial loss, and can impact on our sense of who we are and our mental health. Finding healthier alternatives to gambling, including investing time and money into travel or spending time with family and friends may be a way to increase and stabilise self-esteem and improve mood. A gambling counsellor can help you identify these alternatives and help you develop your self-esteem independent of gambling and the outcome of the machines.