Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Gambling Addiction

May 15, 2024

Gambling addiction is a serious issue that can quietly infiltrate and disrupt lives, leading to significant financial, personal, and professional problems. Recognizing the addiction can be difficult as it doesn’t always present obvious symptoms like other mental health disorders do. 

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is one type of treatment that has been adapted effectively to treat gambling addiction. This therapy focuses on four key skills: mindfulness, emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness. 

These skills help individuals manage their behaviors and emotions more effectively, addressing not only the symptoms but also the root causes of their gambling issues. DBT provides practical tools for individuals to regain control over their lives and make lasting changes towards recovery.

What is Dialectical Behavior Therapy?

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a cognitive-behavioral treatment that was developed by Marsha M. Linehan in the late 1980s to treat individuals with borderline personality disorder. It has since been adapted to a range of other disorders, including substance use and gambling addiction. DBT incorporates standard cognitive-behavioral techniques for emotion regulation and reality-testing with concepts influenced by Buddhist meditative practice, such as mindfulness and acceptance.

The philosophy behind DBT is the concept of "dialectics," which is the reconciliation of opposites in a continual process of synthesis. This approach helps patients find a balance between acceptance and change, enhancing their ability to manage negative emotions and reducing behaviors that are harmful or addictive. DBT is effective in addressing the impulsivity and high emotional arousal associated with gambling addiction, providing individuals with the skills to tolerate distress without resorting to gambling.

DBT vs. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

While both DBT and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are evidence-based psychotherapies, they differ in specific emphases and techniques. CBT primarily focuses on changing unhelpful or unhealthy thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors through a structured approach. It aims to identify and challenge cognitive distortions and develop more balanced and constructive ways of thinking.

In contrast, DBT includes a strong emphasis on emotional and social aspects, with a particular focus on managing emotions and improving relationships. DBT integrates mindfulness as a core component, which helps individuals become more aware and present in the moment, thus increasing their control over their actions. Additionally, DBT's dialectical approach helps clients embrace both acceptance and change, which is useful in treating personality disorders and behavioral addictions. 

Exercises Commonly Used in DBT

DBT uses several unique exercises designed to improve emotional management, enhance mindfulness, and foster better interpersonal relationships. These techniques are beneficial for individuals struggling with behaviors like gambling addiction, as they teach skills that help manage urges and maintain emotional stability.

Common DBT techniques include: 

  • Mindful Reflection: Individuals engage in simple, guided practices that focus on observing their current state without judgment, which includes techniques like:

    • Breath-focused meditation

    • Sensory mindfulness (noticing sounds, sights, and textures)

  • Regulating Emotions: Techniques to help identify, understand, and manage emotions effectively, which are essential for breaking the cycle of impulsive behaviors. These include:

    • Labeling and distancing from emotions

    • Using logic to balance emotional responses

  • Active Response Change: Encourages actions that are contrary to unhealthy impulses driven by current emotions, such as:

    • Engaging in a positive activity when feeling the urge to gamble

    • Practicing expressions of opposite emotions

  • Holistic Self-Care: Emphasizes the importance of physical and mental health as a foundation for emotional stability:

    • Balanced diet and physical activity

    • Regular sleep patterns and mindfulness of medication effects

  • Crisis Management Skills: Quick techniques for de-escalating intense emotional episodes:

    • Using ice or cold water to alter body temperature

    • Short bursts of intense exercise

  • Building Mastery and Pleasure: Activities designed to increase feelings of competence and enjoyment:

    • Pursuing hobbies and skills

    • Setting achievable goals

  • Interpersonal Skills Enhancement: Focuses on nurturing relationships and effective communication:

    • Assertive communication training

    • Conflict resolution strategies

DBT Treatment for Gambling Addiction

Gambling addiction, defined by an uncontrollable urge to gamble despite negative consequences, can lead to significant personal, financial, and social problems. DBT addresses this compulsion by focusing on the psychological triggers that lead to gambling and teaching coping mechanisms to control the urge. The four core processes of DBT include:  

  • Mindfulness: Helps individuals with gambling addiction become more aware of their thoughts and impulses without acting on them.

  • Emotional Regulation: Aids individuals in recognizing and managing intense emotions that might trigger gambling episodes. By understanding and controlling these emotions, individuals can avoid the emotional spirals that often lead to gambling binges.

  • Distress Tolerance: Beneficial for handling the anxiety or stress that can trigger gambling. These tools teach individuals how to withstand negative emotions rather than escaping them through gambling.

  • Interpersonal Effectiveness: Improves personal relationships that may be strained due to the gambling behavior. Strengthening these relationships can provide better support during recovery.

DBT not only helps manage the symptoms of gambling addiction but also targets the underlying issues that lead to such behaviors. By building life skills, DBT aids in fostering a sustainable recovery and improving overall life quality, reducing the likelihood of relapse. 

One example of DBT's effectiveness in treating gambling addiction was observed in a recent study involving a 9-week modified DBT skills group treatment program for problem gamblers. The results were promising, with 83% of participants either abstaining from gambling or significantly reducing their gambling expenditures post-treatment. Additionally, participants reported notable improvements in their ability to practice mindfulness and tolerate distress. 

The Benefits of Dialectical Behavior Therapy

The structured framework and emphasis on both acceptance and change in DBT provide several benefits, including:

  • Enhanced self-awareness

  • Improved emotional regulation

  • Increased distress tolerance

  • Strengthened interpersonal skills

  • Reduced impulsivity

  • Long-term recovery support

  • Holistic improvement in quality of life

DBT uses a variety of techniques that help individuals understand and manage their behaviors more effectively, promoting a balanced and healthy lifestyle. However, while DBT can be highly effective for many, it might not be suitable for everyone.

When DBT Might not be Suitable for Problem Gambling

DBT requires a commitment to participation in therapy sessions and homework exercises, which might be challenging for individuals who struggle with time management or have less motivation for treatment. Additionally, the structured nature of DBT may not align well with individuals who prefer more flexibility in their therapy approaches. 

For problem gamblers who have severe cognitive impairments or other serious mental health disorders requiring more intensive psychiatric care, DBT might need to be combined with other treatment options or might not be the most appropriate primary treatment approach. In these cases, alternative therapies that are more tailored to their specific needs might be more effective.

When to Seek Treatment for Gambling Addiction

Gambling addiction can start as a harmless diversion but can quickly escalate into a serious issue that affects every aspect of life. If you find yourself gambling despite financial losses, or if your habit starts affecting your personal and professional relationships, it's time to consider seeking help. The impact of gambling isn't limited to financial troubles; it also includes neglecting responsibilities at work, school, or home, and may lead to deceptive behaviors like hiding activities from loved ones or accruing debts through unconventional means.

It's important to recognize these warning signs early. The longer the behavior persists, the more ingrained it becomes, making recovery more challenging. Treatment like Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) can offer a structured approach to overcoming this addiction, providing strategies for emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and improving interpersonal relationships. DBT helps in addressing not just the symptoms of gambling addiction, but also the underlying emotional and psychological triggers that contribute to the compulsive behavior.

If you or someone you know is showing signs of gambling addiction, reaching out for professional help can be an important step towards recovery. Treatment centers that specialize in addictive behaviors, particularly gambling, can offer the necessary support and guidance needed to overcome this challenge. Do not wait until the gambling has caused irreversible damage; seek help to regain control and start on the path to recovery. 


dialectical behaviour therapy - Encyclopedia Britannica 

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? - American Psychological Association

A Proof of Concept for Using Brief Dialectical Behavior Therapy as a Treatment for Problem Gambling - Behaviour Change  

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