March Madness chatter is inescapable now – whether you have a family member, friend or coworker who’s obsessed with their brackets, or you overhear someone talking about Duke’s or Michigan State’s chances in the grocery line or at the bank. And that’s not even factoring in the countless commercials, Facebook posts, tweets and headlines.
You don’t have to be a sports fan (or even know anything about basketball) to get in on the action; virtually anyone can pay $5 or $10 and fill in a bracket. As many as 50 million Americans are expected to participate in office pools this year.
The wagering seems innocuous enough, and it usually is. However, for those prone to gambling addiction, the buzz around March Madness can turn dangerous. “For someone with a pre-existing problem with gambling, March Madness conversations can be a trigger in the same way that being around alcohol-centered activities can trigger an alcoholic to want to drink,” explains Marlene Warner, executive director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling (MCCG). “The brain chemistry for a person with a gambling problem, and other people who experience addiction, is different than a non-addict and can trigger the person to experience a rush at the thought of gambling or sports betting before they’ve even made the decision to bet.”
The famous three-week NCAA basketball tournament, which concludes in April with the Final Four in Indianapolis, Indiana, is expected to surpass what gamblers bet on the Super Bowl, with roughly one in five Americans participating. Betting totals reach $9 billion during March Madness. More than $2 billion will be wagered in bracket pools, through more than 70 million brackets this year, according to the American Gaming Association (AGA). To put things in perspective, AGA’s research notes that this is more than the 2012 election ballots cast for President Obama (66 million) — who, by the way, has picked Kentucky and Villanova to reach the finals on April 6.
The fact that Problem Gambling Awareness Month, an initiative sponsored by the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), coincides with March Madness is no coincidence. This year’s theme is “Problem Gambling: Have the Conversation” and the organization hopes to encourage problem gamblers and their loved ones to recognize the warning signs and get help. “Gambling addiction has been largely disregarded as an impulse control problem and not an addiction for many years,” notes Warner. “With more information about gambling disorder as an addiction, it opens up greater opportunity for research and funding for services to treat people who are experiencing these problems.”
An estimated four to six million Americans struggle with problem gambling, and gambling addiction (also called pathological gambling or compulsive gambling) affects an estimated two million people in the U.S. Yet only 7% to 12% of compulsive gamblers will ever seek help, found a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry. For these folks, who are unable to control the urge to bet, a simple wager can trigger a slew of serious consequences, including financial devastation, destroyed careers and damaged relationships. The NCAA opposes all forms of gambling — legal and illegal — on college sports.
Six Steps to Survive March Madness
If you or a loved one is recovering from a gambling addiction; prone to problem gambling; or even struggle with substance abuse addiction (more than 70% of those with gambling disorder have an alcohol problem, and nearly 40% have a drug abuse problem), your best bet is to have a prevention plan in place during March Madness. Start with these tips from Warner, the New York Council on Problem Gambling and other sources:
Write it down. Think of three to five reasons why you stopped gambling in the first place – then write them down and read them to yourself when a craving strikes.
Lean on your support system. Keep emergency numbers handy, whether that’s your 12-step sponsor or counselor or a friend, in case you have an urge to bet. MCCG hosts a 24/7 anonymous helpline at 800-426-1234.
If possible, avoid any triggers. This can include sports bars, gatherings at friends’ houses or even office get-togethers, if you know they will be focused on sports betting.
Excuse yourself from office pools. If you feel uncomfortable you’re not obligated to explain to your colleagues why you don’t want to participate.
Attend an extra meeting. If you’re following a 12-step program this is the perfect time to surround yourself with others who are also struggling with the temptation of March Madness and to pick up some new coping strategies. Visit Gamblers Anonymous to find a meeting near you.
Get creative. Find non-gambling ways to enjoy the games, like inviting friends over for a potluck party or heading outside to play some one-on-one basketball, no betting allowed. If just watching the game is a trigger for you, then use this time to run errands, catch up with an old friend or start some spring cleaning.
Visit the In Recovery section for more tips on avoiding triggers and preventing relapse.