DEAR DOCTOR K: I used to gamble once a year, on a trip to Vegas. But lately my lifelong battle with anxiety has gotten worse – and so has my gambling. Are they related? What can I do?
DEAR READER: Gambling and anxiety do often go hand in hand. People who gamble report feeling less anxious while gambling because the excitement masks anxious feelings. This relief can become addictive, and the impulse to gamble can become overwhelming.
So for many gamblers, reducing anxiety by some other means is necessary in order to control the urge to gamble as a way of dealing with anxiety. There are several techniques that can help.
One of the most powerful ways that people can counteract anxiety is by learning relaxation techniques.
One way to relax is through deep breathing or breath focus. Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit or lie down. Begin by taking a slow, deep breath. The air coming in through your nose should move downward into your lower belly. Let your abdomen expand fully. Now breathe out through your mouth (or your nose, if that feels more natural).
Put one hand on your abdomen, just below your belly button. Feel your hand rise about an inch each time you inhale and fall about an inch each time you exhale. Your chest will rise slightly, too. Remember to relax your belly so that each inhalation expands it fully. As you breathe out, imagine that the air leaving your body carries tension and anxiety away with it.
When you first start, 10 minutes of breath focus is a reasonable goal. Gradually add time until your sessions are about 15 to 20 minutes long.
Other treatments for anxiety also can help. Anti-anxiety medicines and cognitive behavioral therapy (a form of “talk therapy”) are effective treatments for anxiety as well.