Gambling, when treated with clear understanding, can be an enjoyable hobby for a person. However, due to the risk-for-reward mechanism that gambling entails, it is possible to develop an addiction to the activity —one that can cause severe damage to your life and relationships. Fortunately, there are ways to find out if you (or someone you care about) may have an addiction and resources that can help you and your loved ones who may be affected by problem gambling.

Gambling Addiction Is a Serious Problem

Gambling addiction occurs when you find yourself unable to stop gambling, despite it causing problems in your life. It can also be called “compulsive gambling” or “gambling disorder.” Today, this problem has been recognized as a psychiatric issue as serious as depression or schizophrenia. This is because medical professionals recognize that underlying biological changes are involved and that they can treat the problem like other mental health issues.

Gambling addiction is not a new phenomenon, even though medical professionals have only recently found ways to address it. Many intelligent and successful people have unfortunately been left destitute due to excessive gambling, including “Deadwood” creator David Milch and literary great Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Gambling addiction is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of a disorder that needs to be treated.

The Causes and Risk Factors of Gambling Addiction

While new research is being done every year, we are still unsure as to the exact reason why one person develops a gambling addiction and another doesn’t. However, through looking at large groups of people who have sought help for gambling problems, we have been able to identify certain risk factors that play a role.

Age

Compulsive gambling is more likely to occur during middle age, although some studies have shown that people exposed to gambling behavior as children are also more likely to develop an addiction as adults.

Sex

Men are slightly more likely to become addicted than women, but women who develop this addiction tend to do so faster.

Family

If you have a family member who has an addiction issue, including alcoholism, you have a greater risk of developing a gambling addiction. This increases if that family member is a parent or sibling.

Other Mental Health Disorders

If you suffer from bipolar disorder or other disorders that involve manic thinking, you are more likely to suffer from a gambling addiction. Psychiatrists will always check if your behavior may be caused by another underlying condition before diagnosing you with a gambling disorder.

Medications

Certain medications, particularly “dopamine agonists” like Levodopa, increase compulsive behavior because of how they interact with dopamine. These medications are often given for neurological issues like Parkinson’s disease.

Signs and Symptoms of Gambling Addiction

Like all medical problems, people with a gambling addiction have specific signs and symptoms that can help in diagnosis. Recognizing these signs in yourself or your loved ones is often the first step in the road to recovery.

DSM-V Criteria for Gambling Disorder

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a resource used by mental health professionals to help recognize psychological and behavioral problems we may be facing in life, and find the best treatments for them. In the fifth edition of this resource, Gambling Disorder is described as “Persistent and recurrent problematic gambling behavior leading to clinically significant impairment or distress.”

A person who exhibits four or more of the following behaviors is considered to have a gambling disorder:

  • Needs to gamble with increasing amounts of money to achieve the desired level of excitement.
  • Is restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop gambling.
  • Has made repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop gambling.
  • Is often preoccupied with gambling (e.g., having persistent thoughts of reliving past gambling experiences, handicapping or planning the next venture, thinking of ways to get money with which to gamble).
  • Often gambles when feeling distressed (e.g., helpless, guilty, anxious, depressed).
  • After losing money gambling, often returns another day to get even (“chasing” one’s losses).
  • Lies to conceal the extent of involvement with gambling.
  • Has jeopardized or lost a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of gambling.
  • Relies on others to provide money to relieve desperate financial situations caused by gambling.

Gambling Disorder can be mild, moderate, or severe, and can also occur “episodically,” which means that you may go months without any issues.

While a person may not have four of the above behaviors, having any of them can be a cause for concern. For this reason, it is useful to speak to professions about your gambling and if it may be an issue for you. You can find a nearby rehabilitation center by using our website. They can offer advice and support, as well as resources to help you choose your next steps.

How the Brain Changes With Gambling Addiction

Dopamine, the brain chemical that is released during sex, eating good food, and otherwise experiencing an exciting event, is also released when using certain drugs. When gambling, the anticipation of possibly winning a bet can cause a similar dopamine release. In someone with a gambling addiction, this can cause permanent changes, leading to the brain changing how it reacts. Instead of providing a high when winning, it can also release smaller quantities of dopamine when losing! For a person with a gambling addiction, winning or losing no longer matter as much, even if they think it does.

Symptoms of Gambling Addiction

It can sometimes be difficult to know the difference between “enjoying the occasional bet” and being addicted to gambling. There are very few physical changes that you notice within yourself. However, there are types of thoughts and behaviors that can be considered important to look out for.

Money

When gambling, is the money you use the money you would instead use on going to the movies? Or the money you would instead use to buy groceries? Using money that is normally budgeted for luxuries shows that you are still treating gambling as a form of entertainment. However, if you are failing to pay bills or take care of important expenses like groceries, you are likely prioritizing gambling over the health and welfare of yourself and your family.

Relationships

With addiction, whether to gambling, alcohol, drugs, or sex, relationships suffer. Friendships fracture and fighting at home increases. A good rule of thumb is this: if a person you care about thinks you have an addiction, you should believe them. It may be that you don’t, but confirming this with a professional can give your relationships better stability.

Obsessive Thinking

People think about their hobbies. This is natural. Just as you might think about a bad loss playing football, you may consider it a bad bet. However, thinking about gambling all the time, and having it break your concentration on work, studies, or conversations with those you care about, is a sign that you may be developing an addiction.

Signs of Gambling Addiction

It can be quite worrying when someone you love is acting in a way that indicates compulsive gambling. However, we are also inclined to not want to offend someone who might be just enjoying a hobby we are personally uninterested in. We can look for specific signs that indicate a person’s gambling habits are unhealthy —behaviors that do not occur in the healthy gambler.

Missing Appointments and Events

Compulsive gamblers often struggle to control when they want to gamble, and so they will miss meetings, parties, and dinners. They are also more likely to lose track of time while gambling. When asked, they may act defensive about where they have been during this missing time, even if they are honest about their location.

Lowering of Hygiene Standards

Addicts often become obsessed to the point that they neglect their basic hygiene, as it is no longer a priority to them. If someone you care about stops grooming, changing their clothes regularly, or bathing, this can be a sign of addiction. This is also a sign of poor mental health generally, so it worth noticing, even among non-gamblers.

Being Quiet About Wins

It is completely natural for gamblers to talk about the big wins and losses that they have made recently, and this should not be seen as a sign of compulsive gambling. However, if a gambler does not talk about how they did, this instead can be seen as a sign of concern. Not discussing wins may be due to the win not covering recent large losses, or because wins and losses no longer play a role in why the person gambles. The physiology of dopamine pathways, as discussed here, is the primary reason why this occurs.

Treatment of Gambling Addiction

Although gambling disorder is quite serious and can cause damage to the life of the gambler, there are a variety of programs, known as “gambling recovery programs,” that have been shown to work. These therapies can be provided concurrently with programs for other addictions and substance abuse problems, and can be administered without inpatient care.

Gambling recovery programs often involve one or more of the following core therapies that help provide a patient with the tools and knowledge to combat their addiction through the rest of their life:

  • Individual Therapy: working one-on-one with a professional, you can find out what your personal triggers are and find healthier ways to address them.
  • Group Therapy: working with a support network of peers, including those who have experienced long-term help with gambling disorder. By sharing experiences and coping strategies, you can develop relationships that you can be honest and open in.
  • Family Counseling: gambling addiction has a heavy impact on loved ones, and working together with them (instead of against them or apart from them) has been shown to greatly increase the effectiveness of other treatments.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): a specific set of tools that address self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that can lead to falling into delusional thinking, (e.g., believing you can win against the odds).

How Rehabilitation Centers Help With Gambling Addiction

Inpatient care at a rehabilitation facility can often be a psychological “firewall” that allows you to come to terms with your addiction and begin developing the essential tools to combat it without having the temptation to gamble around you. Inpatient care for gambling disorders is often recommended when other disorders and addictions are involved.

When you are ready to leave inpatient care, rehabilitation centers can continue to work with you and your loved ones, providing outpatient services and therapies in the long term. They can also direct you to other community services that can help you through your journey.

The professionals at rehabilitation centers have much experience with compulsive gambling and gambling addiction. If you are concerned that you or a loved one may be addicted to gambling, they can offer advice and assessment so that you know what the next steps should be.

By reaching out to the rehabilitation centers on our site, you can be put in touch with an expert in next to no time. It is better to reach out and have your concerns allayed than to do nothing and later learn you could be saving a life.

Financial Help with Gambling Addiction

Rehabilitation centers can direct you to professional financial consultants who can help you address the financial damage caused by gambling addiction, as well as offer tools to decrease the ability to engage in problem gambling in the future. This can also include helping you with outstanding debts caused by gambling addiction.

Gambling addiction is not an excuse to avoid repaying debts, but with expert help and therapeutic support, many addicts have been able to repay debts, develop strong savings habits, and get themselves into a position where they are no longer worried about money.

Frequently Asked Questions

Gambling has a long history and, at times, has been seen as illegal or immoral. Sometimes, it seems illogical that any “sane” person would gamble when they know they will lose in the long term. Because of the already controversial nature of the hobby, we often have many questions and no answers. In order to help, we’ve compiled the most common questions we are asked, in the hope that we can provide an answer to yours.

Is Gambling a Mental Illness?

Gambling in itself is not a mental illness. One-quarter of Americans enjoy the occasional bet, despite knowing they are unlikely to win. Gambling is legal in 48 US states and the District of Columbia.

Can a Gambler Ever Stop?

A gambler who does not have an addiction can stop. This is one way to recognize compulsive gambling —if a person can stop gambling for over a year without having problems, they are unlikely to have an addiction. However, addicts often believe they can stop, but do not do so. Thinking you can stop is not enough to be confident.

Should You Loan a Gambler Money to Pay off Debts?

No. Even if a person is in serious financial debt, you should not offer or loan a person money for their gambling. Instead, offer to support them getting professional help, including helping them into a rehabilitation center.

How Common Is Gambling Addiction?

Approximately two million adults in the United States meet the criteria for severe gambling disorder. Another four to six million would meet enough criteria to be considered to have a mild or moderate gambling disorder. You are not alone in facing gambling addiction, and the odds of successful rehabilitation from the disorder are high.

Is Addiction a Weakness of Mind?

No. Just as diabetes is not an indication of a person being physically weak, addiction is not an indication of mental weakness. Addictions are faced by people of all backgrounds and “mental fortitude” offers no protection from them.

How Can It Be an Addiction if I’m Still Paying My Bills?

Experiencing financial hardship is only one of the criteria for problematic gambling, and is not necessary for you to be having a gambling disorder. Unfortunately, many people refuse to admit they have a gambling disorder because they have been wealthy enough to not have it affect their ability to pay bills. However, their habits have still caused damage to relationships, their physical health, and their ability to enjoy other aspects of life.

My Loved One Thinks I Have a Gambling Addiction, but I Don’t. How Can I Show Them?

The best ways to show yourself and others that you do not have a gambling addiction are to stop gambling and have yourself professionally assessed. Just as you would give up another hobby to put your loved ones’ minds at ease, you should find this easy to do. If you find yourself struggling in this area, it may be your own body trying to point to an addiction.

Final Words

Gambling addiction is as serious as any substance abuse problem and can be just as damaging to the lives of those you love. It is a disorder, not a weakness, and with professional help, it can be combated. Rehabilitation centers have experts in helping those who face gambling addiction and can direct you to community services that can help people with compulsive gambling issues get their lives back on track.

Medical Disclaimer

At RehabAid.com, we are dedicated to helping people recover from problematic substance use and associated mental health disorders. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, you are not alone. Information on treatment and support options is readily available through the National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-4357. To further assist you along the path to recovery, the treatment center locator on our website allows you to easily find rehabilitation programs and services in your local area.

We provide our readers with factual, evidence-based content concerning the causes and nature of addiction, as well as available treatment options. However, this informative content is intended for educational purposes only. It is by no means a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. With regard to any addiction-related health concerns, you should always seek the guidance of a qualified, registered physician who is licensed to practice medicine in your particular jurisdiction. You should never avoid or delay seeking professional health care advice or services based on information obtained from our website. Our authors, editors, medical reviewers, website developers, and parent company do not assume any liability, obligation, or responsibility for any loss, damage, or adverse consequences alleged to have happened directly or indirectly as a result of the material presented on RehabAid.com.