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Mindfulness, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Helps Gambling Addicts

People diagnosed with gambling disorder have an addiction to participating in one or more types of gambling activity. Specialists commonly refer to this non-substance-related condition as a form of behavioral addiction. In a study published in April 2014 in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, researchers from Canada’s University of Toronto investigated the potential of a form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help people with serious gambling problems. The particular form of CBT the researchers looked at featured involvement in a practice called mindfulness.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The underlying goal of cognitive behavioral therapy is to help people recognize patterns of thought and behavior that significantly interfere with one or more aspects of their health and well-being. CBT practitioners also help their patients/clients establish new thought and behavioral patterns that don’t diminish health and well-being. Instead of directly leading the course of the therapy, practitioners provide the support and structure needed for patients/clients to make their own explorations and discoveries. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a scientifically verified option for treating people affected by substance addiction, as well as other conditions such as major depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders and schizophrenia. CBT takes place over an average of 15 to 16 weekly sessions. Therapists may use the approach in settings that include individualized treatment, group treatment and family-centered treatment.


The chief goals of mindfulness are learning how to pay attention to momentary changes in your thought patterns, bodily sensations and surrounding environment, and learning how to avoid passing judgment on these momentary experiences. This approach stems from longstanding techniques used in certain forms of Buddhist meditation; however, mindfulness is not a religiously oriented practice and people of any faith can take part in mindfulness training. In the last few years, researchers have investigated the possible mental and physical benefits of mindfulness. Potential benefits with at least some evidence-based support include an increased ability to endure the emotional/psychological stresses of negative states of mind, an improved ability to maintain emotional control and avoid impulsive behavior, improved function in the parts of the brain associated with learning and memory, an improved ability to establish healthy eating behaviors and increased efficiency in day-to-day immune system function. Some practitioners of cognitive behavioral therapy and other forms of psychotherapy have begun incorporating mindfulness techniques into their treatment approaches.

Usefulness for Gambling Problems

In the study published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, the University of Toronto researchers tested the potential usefulness of the combination of mindfulness and cognitive behavior therapy as treatment for serious gambling problems. They undertook this project because mindfulness has not been well researched in populations affected by gambling problems and/or gambling addiction. During the study, a group of problem gamblers received mindfulness instruction while taking part in five sessions of CBT. Some of these participants met the official criteria used to diagnose a gambling addiction; others clearly had gambling-related issues, but did not meet the criteria for making an official diagnosis. For the sake of comparison, the study also included a second group of similarly affected problem gamblers who did not receive mindfulness instruction. The researchers concluded that the group that received mindfulness instruction and cognitive behavioral therapy experienced a significant decline in two important indicators of problem gambling: cravings for gambling participation and extent of gambling involvement. The group that received mindfulness instruction also had lower levels of other symptoms of mental illness. When the researchers conducted a follow-up three months after treatment came to an end, they found that the benefits were still in effect. In addition, they found that the number of people who met the criteria for a gambling addiction diagnosis had substantially declined.

Importance of Continued Practice

The authors of the study found that the participants who continued to practice mindfulness after completing their treatment had substantially fewer gambling-related problems than their counterparts. They believe that this fact reinforces their conclusion that mindfulness, in particular, helps explain the benefits of the combined use of mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s important to note that the authors view their study as a pilot project. Further research will be needed to determine the large-scale role that mindfulness training might play in effective treatment programs for gambling problems.

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