Poker and Exposure Therapy

poker paint

I’ll never forget how nervous I was my first night playing poker at a casino in Atlantic City. My heart pounded a mile a minute, my fingers sweat onto the cards, and my hands shook like maracas every time I pushed chips into the pot. I was afraid to win a hand because I didn’t know how to tip the dealer. I was so scared, I folded pocket kings before the flop. My fear cost me money. The other guy only had jacks. I was a better player than that.

After seeing the World Series of Poker on television, I became obsessed with the game of Texas Hold ‘Em. I played online poker every day for three years straight and won more money than I lost. I played aggressive and confident online, but when I got to the casino, I played tight and afraid.

Luckily, as the night went along, I began to feel more comfortable at the table. Most of the other players were friendly, and the dealers were nice. My hands stopped shaking so much, and I no longer sweat. I started playing better, won a hand or two, and even tipped the dealer.

I thought I was over my casino fear for good, but the next time I went to play poker in Atlantic City, I was just as nervous as before. Only this time, the fear dissipated quicker. The first night it took a couple of hours for me to calm down, but this time it only took a couple of hands. Then, my third night, I was less nervous still. By my fifth time there, I wasn’t nervous at all. I was no longer afraid to play poker in the casino because I had done it so many times. Nothing bad had happened to me, other than losing some money, so I realized there was nothing to fear.

I stopped playing poker for a several years. Online poker became outlawed, plus I was busy with my new interest: writing. A few months ago, on a lark, I decided to visit a poker club in Daytona Beach, FL. When I sat at the table, I was almost as nervous as the first night I played in Atlantic City. I was confused. I thought I was over that fear.

The chips shook in my hands like before, but the nerves didn’t last as long as the first time, and I got comfortable quicker. I knew I had done it before. I just needed to refresh myself and remember how to do it. It only took a few hands until I was playing like my normal self. I got over my fear of live poker through exposure, which is the same way to get over social anxiety.

I knew how to play poker, just like I knew how to talk, but because of fear, I was unable to. The only way I got over that fear and became comfortable playing poker at the casino was by sitting through the fear and playing poker in the casino. The same logic applies to social anxiety. The only way to get over our fear of talking to people is by embracing the fear and talking to people. We will be nervous at first, perhaps even make a verbal mistake the equivalent of folding pocket kings, but that’s okay. I wound up winning money later that night, despite my early mistake.

Poker is one of the rare places in life where not talking is actually beneficial, which is one of the reasons I was drawn to the game. I never started talking to people at the casino poker tables, but through exposure, I was able to get over my fear of playing with people in public. Exposure works in poker the same way it works with social anxiety. Face you fear long enough and you will no longer fear it.

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