Problem Gambling Withdrawals and Post-Acute Withdrawals (PAWS)

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Problem Gambling Withdrawals and Post-Acute Withdrawals (PAWS)

Making changes and stopping problem behaviors of any kind is very difficult. We would like to help you better understand what you will go through physically, emotionally, and biologically once you have made the decision to stop gambling. Always remember you are not alone on this path. You can call or text the 888-ADMIT-IT HelpLine at any time to speak with a Specialist that can connect you with free resources to guide you through your journey.

It is important to understand that when you stop using substances or gambling you may experience withdrawals, depression, and cravings. Studies show that when a person ingests a chemical like drugs or alcohol, the substance stimulates the reward/pleasure center of their brain. Did you know that the same process occurs when gambling? This is what makes you feel good and why for some people, gambling can become an addiction. There is something called neurotransmitters in the brain and body that fire off substances when needed. Some of these that are involved in the feel good of addiction you may have heard of: dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline and endorphins. A couple of examples would be when you work out or do any cardio where your heart gets pumping, you feel more relaxed and less pain. This is the neurotransmitter called endorphins causing you to feel better. If you are on anti-depressants, which are prescribed by a doctor, the antidepressants light up the neurotransmitters of dopamine and serotonin, which make you feel better. With compulsive gambling, you only have to think about gambling or remember a past gamble in order to fire off these neurotransmitters. This makes it more difficult to stop. Even though you are not ingesting anything, a chemical change is still occurring within your brain!

In the absence of problem gambling or substance abuse, the brain fires off these neurotransmitters by itself when we need to feel good. Someone suffering from problem gambling begins to rely on an outside source to fire them off. After some time, as the addiction progresses, the brain forgets how to fire them off by itself – and the person becomes dependent on gambling to make them feel good. The result is called a craving, caused by the brain wanting the stimulant. There may also be depression or withdrawals. There are two steps in the withdrawal process:

  1. Acute Withdrawal can have symptoms lasting 3-10 days after stopping the behavior.
  2. Post-Acute Withdrawal (PAWS) happens over time, with symptoms lasting up to 18 months or longer.

Some may have withdrawal cravings for the rest of their lives. You can read the blogs on the gamblinghelp.org website to learn how to cope with these cravings.

During the withdrawal process, there are certain times when the brain is healing and learning to reboot or repair itself. These times can be particularly difficult and cause cravings and depressive symptoms. If you are working on your recovery, be aware of these times by noticing your behaviors. Here are some things to look out for at these times:

  • Irritable
  • Overreacting
  • Anxious
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling rage
  • Short- and long-term memory loss
  • Rapid and repetitive thinking
  • Sleep problems
  • Gambling dreams
  • Low energy
  • Headaches
  • Mood swings
  • Less stress tolerance
  • Impulsivity

The first 60-120 days of recovery are critical, because not only are you going through physical changes (withdrawals), but you are trying to make changes in your life and fix the problems caused by the behavior. Relapse can and does happen, so expect it. If you slip and gamble then learn how and why it happened, pick yourself up and keep going into recovery. The best approach would be to find a trusted person and share with them this information and what your thoughts and behaviors are around cravings and withdrawals. You then must give them permission to tell you what they are noticing, and you cannot get mad about it. Be careful not to use this as an excuse to go gamble and try and blame them for the relapse.

Recovery can be a minute-by-minute battle, but if you persevere through each battle you will win the war! Journaling your thoughts and behaviors will help you through these times because you can go back and read it and remember how you made it. You are not alone in your recovery. The 888-ADMIT-IT HelpLine has many resources to help, including the FCCG’s Online Program for Problem Gamblers (OPPG), Self-Help Groups like Gamblers Anonymous, the FCCG’s Peer Connect Program, and the A Chance for Change Self-Help Recovery Workbooks to name just a few. Call or text 24/7, or open a live chat at gamblinghelp.org!

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