Dear Dr. Komaroff: 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 often do 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 more powerful ways that people can counteract anxiety is by learning relaxation techniques. These can teach you to identify worry triggers. Then you can defuse the triggers and break the cycle of anxiety. It’s best to do them every day. The more you do them, the more positive effect they will have. There are many types of relaxation exercises, from mindfulness meditation to exercises such as yoga and tai chi.
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.
Other treatments such as anti-anxiety medicines and cognitive behavioral therapy (a form of “talk therapy”) are effective as well.
Dr. Anthony Komaroff is a physician and a professor at Harvard Medical School. To ask a question or for infor-mation, go to askdoctork.com.