This problem is not picky – it affects people from all walks of life, and what began as a harmless weekend pastime with friends may quickly turn into an unhealthy obsession with grave repercussions. Whether it’s with sports betting, casino slots, poker, or roulette, a gambling problem will jeopardize your relationships, interfere with your work, and eventually cause financial crises.
Gambling addiction, also known as a gambling disorder or compulsive gambling, is an impulse-control disorder. A gambling addict cannot control their impulses even when the odds are against them and the devastating impact gambling has on both them and their loved ones is perfectly clear.
While it’s certainly possible for some people to be active gamblers without things getting completely out of control, if gambling is your main preoccupation in life, and disrupts all other areas of your existence, you can, unfortunately, count yourself among the problem gamblers.
Defining the Problem
Pathological gambling was long regarded by the psychiatric community as behavior driven by the need to alleviate anxiety, rather than an addiction. In the 1980s, the American Psychiatric Association classified problematic gambling as an impulse-control disorder, grouped with illnesses such as kleptomania, trichotillomania (hair-pulling), and pyromania. After a decade of research into the issue, pathological gambling was relabeled as an addiction. Scientists gained a new understanding of its underlying causes, also affecting the way psychiatrists treat people who cannot resist gambling.
Today, gambling has never been more accessible and acceptable, so the need for effective treatment has never been greater. Gambling addiction statistics show that every other US citizen has tried gambling at least once. Almost every state has legalized some form of gambling, and you don’t even need to leave your home to do it – just the Internet on your phone. As a result, around two million people in the US are gambling addicts, and about four to six million citizens have “mild” gambling problems interfering with their work and life.
Numerous studies in genetics, psychology, and neuroscience led the American Psychiatric Association to conclude that gambling is quite similar to classic drug addiction. Technological advances have granted scientists deeper insight into the effects compulsive gambling has on the brain. Thus, they have formulated a more accurate gambling addiction definition.
The mid-part of our brain, known as the reward system, is linked to the neural regions responsible for memory, motivation, pleasure, and movement. When we engage in survival activity or something we simply enjoy, the reward system neurons produce a chemical called dopamine, causing us to feel satisfaction. When this region is stimulated with substances such as cocaine, amphetamines, or other addictive drugs, dopamine levels skyrocket. Prolonged use of these drugs keeps the brain awash with dopamine, reducing its natural ability to produce it and causing it to become less sensitive to its effects. Any help for a gambling addiction has to address this issue first, since addicts build up a dangerous tolerance, leading to ever-increasing dosages of either drugs or gambling.
In cases of severe addiction, the absence of the drug causes withdrawal, manifesting as physical and mental pain, insomnia, shivering and sweating. Simultaneously, the neural pathways linking the reward system with the prefrontal cortex – whose job is to control impulses – are weakening. In simple terms, the more a person uses a drug, the harder it is to stop.
Drug addiction research and gambling addiction facts show that drug addicts and compulsive gamblers share genetic predispositions for reward-seeking behavior and impulsivity. Pathological gamblers seek ever-riskier ventures in an effort to get high and, just like drug addicts, they’ll go through withdrawal after abstaining from their favorite activity.
Compelling studies show that both drug abuse and gambling can alter certain brain circuits. This was discovered by monitoring the electrical activity and blood flow in the subjects’ brains as they participated in gambling simulations. One German study suggests that many pathological gamblers lose their sensitivity to getting high – winning brought about low electrical activity in the key regions of the brain. Studies from Yale University and the University of Amsterdam have also demonstrated that gambling addicts have unusually low electrical activity in the prefrontal region in charge of risk assessment and impulse control – strikingly similar to substance abusers.
To make matters more interesting, patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease – the illness characterized by tremors and muscle stiffness caused by the degeneration of dopamine-producing neurons in the midbrain – are often problem gamblers as well. Treatment in the form of drugs that increase dopamine levels aimed at Parkinson’s can be beneficial in treating addiction, thus helping patients make more rational decisions and resist temptation.
New evidence has helped scientists redefine addiction itself: Whereas addiction used to be defined as a chemical dependency, it is now considered to be a repeated pursuit of a rewarding experience despite grave consequences. Said experience could be anything from the thrill and excitement of winning huge amounts of money in a casino to getting high on cocaine. So, when we talk about compulsive behavior, and thus gambling addiction, it’s important to say that any influence that alters the brain in this specific way qualifies as an addiction.
Debunking the Myths
There are plenty of myths surrounding problem gambling, all of which should be debunked to understand it better and take proper action. For instance, one common misconception is that you need to gamble every day to qualify as a compulsive gambler. This is simply not true – whether you gamble frequently or occasionally if there are obvious signs of gambling addiction and accompanying difficulties, you have a gambling problem. Some people think it’s not an actual problem if you can afford it, but financial issues are not the only thing gambling causes. It also destroys relationships between partners and within a family, causes legal problems, interferes with work, and can lead to depression, anxiety, and even suicide.
Another damaging myth is that only weak-willed, unintelligent, and irresponsible people become addicts. In reality, anyone from any background and of any level of intelligence can fall prey to gambling. Furthermore, the belief that your partner can drive you into gambling is simply wrong. Ignoring gambling addiction symptoms and blaming others for the consequences of their actions is a typical way problem gamblers avoid responsibility. Their partners are not obligated to bail them out or pay off their debts, and such quick fixes won’t work long-term, anyway. They might actually make matters worse by enabling the addict to continue gambling.
The Signs and Symptoms
Sometimes referred to as a “hidden illness”, compulsive gambling is not always as conspicuous as drug addiction and alcoholism can be. However, something pathological gamblers have in common with substance abusers is a state of denial and attempts to minimize the severity of their problem.
If the following symptoms are present, the person has a gambling problem: They are trying to hide their gambling habit, lie about it, and have trouble controlling it – once they start, they feel compelled to gamble till they spend their last dollar, and continue even after losing everything. This is the point where things get even worse if gamblers don’t know how to stop their gambling addiction, as they start tapping into the money usually reserved for bills, loan payments, savings, college funds, and valuable possessions. They often borrow money from friends or even decide to steal some.
If friends and family notice these signs, they should try to intervene and reassure the person in question that admitting there’s a problem and accepting help is not a sign of weakness. Many gamblers hesitate to reach out to their children whose inheritance they’ve gambled away, but it’s never too late to try. There are many ways to get gambling addiction treatment, from self-help to professional assistance.
Ways to Help Yourself
The first step to overcoming any addiction is realizing and admitting that there is a problem. This requires enormous strength and courage, particularly if you’ve lost a significant amount of money and caused a strain in your family and work relationships. However, there’s no need to despair or struggle alone: For better or worse, a lot of people have been in those same shoes, reached out to experienced professionals for treatment for their gambling addiction, and managed to pull through and rebuild their lives.
One of the things you can do is learn how to relieve unpleasant feelings in healthier and more appropriate ways. People often turn to gambling after a hard day at work, an argument with their partner, or when they feel lonely, bored, or anxious. Addictive behavior often starts as a way to self-soothe, but there are far more effective methods to achieve the same outcome. You can try exercising, socializing, volunteering, practicing meditation and mindfulness, or simply finding a new hobby.
It’s very important to fortify your support network and get gambling addiction help. Battling any type of addiction is extremely challenging, particularly if you try doing it alone. Reach out to your family and colleagues, join a sports club or a book club, enroll in a course, and start attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings.
A peer support group such as Gamblers Anonymous offers 12-step programs of recovery similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. Finding a sponsor – a former recovered gambler who has gone through the entire process – who can offer you their knowledge, experience, guidance, and support is key. If you’re not in a position to attend these meetings and your crisis is severe, you can call a gambling addiction hotline and get immediate support via phone call.
Addiction is often accompanied by underlying disorders, such as depression, anxiety, stress, or substance abuse, which can either trigger gambling behavior or make it worse. Even after overcoming gambling, these problems may persist, and it’s crucial to seek professional help in such cases.
Stopping for Good
Many problem gamblers claim that the main challenge is not quitting itself, but rather staying in recovery. Making a permanent commitment to avoid gambling and staying strong is hard, especially if you don’t know how to deal with a gambling addiction. Moreover, the Internet has made gambling too easily accessible, and relapse even harder to avoid. However, staying on the recovery track is possible if you surround yourself with a good support system, block tempting websites and venues, relinquish control of your finances to your partner or family, and find healthier activities to occupy your attention.
Removing the elements of your day-to-day life that encourage gambling is essential, the first of which is your decision to gamble. When you feel the urge, stop whatever you’re doing and call a friend, your sponsor, go to gambling addiction counseling, think about the consequences, and turn to your replacement activity.
Also, you can’t gamble if there’s no money to gamble with: Get rid of your credit cards and let your finances be managed by someone else – your partner, a friend, or a family member. You should also have your bank make automatic payments for your expenses, close all your online betting accounts, and carry only a limited amount of cash to cover basic needs.
Time is another important element when finding ways how to deal with a gambling addiction. You can’t spend time gambling, even online, if you’re too busy doing other things. Scheduling your new hobbies and activities at the time of day you typically used to spend gambling can go a long way. Of course, delete all gambling apps from your phone and computer, so you’re not tempted further.
Maintaining recovery means you need to put a lot of effort into finding alternative behaviors to replace your former passion. It will be that much easier to substitute one for the other if this new activity provides a similar sort of excitement, without the danger. A gambling addiction forum can be a great source of information about this. You might try a challenging sport like mountain biking, rock climbing, Go Kart racing, whitewater rafting, kayaking, or martial arts.
It’s also important you overcome your isolation. Joining a social group, public speaking or acting class, or volunteering can help a great deal. All of these activities will bring you in closer contact with other people who might share similar experiences, so you can connect with them on a deeper level. If you feel things getting out of hand, checking into a gambling addiction rehab facility could be the answer you’re looking for.
Coping with Cravings and Lapses
Having cravings – i.e., the urge to gamble – is perfectly normal, but as you continue to persevere in making healthier choices and rely on your support network, temptations become easier to resist. At times of crisis, it’s best you avoid isolation and resort to substitute activities to distract you from your desire – exercising, yoga, meditation, listening to music, or watching a movie with your friends are all great options.
Another way to get gambling addiction help is to go to Gamblers Anonymous meetings and call or stay with a trusted family member or close friend until you feel safer. Try to imagine the outcome of gambling – think about all the money lost, how you’d feel about it, and what it would do to your family.
Relapses might happen, of course, but don’t be too hard on yourself, nor use a lapse as an excuse to give up on your recovery completely. Overcoming any addiction is a challenging process that takes time and effort. Slip-ups might happen occasionally but what matters is that you continue to seek treatment for your gambling addiction, learn from your mistakes, and keep working on your recovery.
Overcoming addiction is tough and asking for professional help is not a sign of weakness, but of your determination to solve your problem and get your life back on track. Every gambler is different, each situation is unique, and needs vary from person to person, so it’s necessary to find a recovery program that will suit you best and help you achieve your final goal.
The typical programs at gambling addiction treatment centers include inpatient/residential rehab programs aimed at people with severe problems, who cannot resist gambling without constant support. The programs often include treatment for underlying conditions that contribute negatively to compulsive gambling such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, OCD, or even bipolar disorder. The methods usually include medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy aims at changing harmful behaviors and thoughts, by teaching patients how to fight off gambling compulsion, and manage the financial, professional, and interpersonal issues caused by their addiction. The tools you learn here will serve you well in other areas of your life, too.
Coping Advice for Family Members
Gambling addiction can be particularly hard for family members and there are always conflicting emotions involved. Keeping a loved one away from compulsive gambling, covering for them, and dealing with financial losses is very time- and energy-consuming. Anger and resentment about borrowed or stolen money, selling valuable family possessions, and running up massive debt on your joint bank account are also often part of the mix.
As much as compulsive gamblers need the help and support of their family to learn how to deal with gambling addiction, the decision to stop is ultimately theirs. The family needs to understand that nothing they can do will stop the person from gambling, but what they can do is encourage them to seek help, offer constant support, and protect themselves, as well as the gambler, especially if there is any talk of suicide.
Self-protection is the first step, both emotionally and financially. Do not trouble yourself with guilt about the gambler’s addiction and do not let it dominate your lives. Ignoring your needs will ultimately lead to burnout. Ask for gambling addiction help and you’ll realize there are many families out there dealing with the same problem and many support groups so you’re not alone in your fight.
Set boundaries when it comes to managing money – take over the family finances to prevent relapses and further threats to your family’s financial stability. Be very careful when they ask you for money, as problem gamblers learn various ways of getting what they want and often resort to lying, manipulation, and even threats or violence.
Keep communicating about the problem, its consequences, and ways of getting help for gambling addiction, but make sure you do it when everyone’s calm. The gambler needs to understand that their actions affect the family deeply, causing suffering for everyone involved. Ask for professional help and go to therapy together as a family, but be prepared for obstacles and setbacks along the way.
There will be times when everything will seem like too much to handle, but try your best not to lose your temper, preach, threaten, or pose ultimatums you won’t be able to follow through on. Don’t neglect the person’s good sides, or prevent them from taking part in family activities. There is no quick fix here – quality gambling addiction treatment is a complex process, and other hidden problems may surface.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Is gambling a mental illness?
Compulsive gambling is categorized as a progressive addiction and common impulse-control disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, with negative psychological, physical, and social impact. The global rate of compulsive gambling has risen dramatically over the past decade.
People struggling with addiction often struggle with other mental and physical issues too, such as anxiety, depression, increased stress levels, insomnia, intestinal problems, etc. Other common signs of gambling addiction are feelings of helplessness and despondency and, in severe cases, thoughts of suicide.
Why do people get addicted to gambling?
Lots of people enjoy a game of chance now and then and it’s the risk waged against the reward that gives players that rush of excitement. However, going overboard causes problems, as it does with other addictive activities and substances.
The brain is easily conditioned into needing more and more to achieve satisfaction, to the point where the neural networks in your brain change. A person that reaches this phase needs to get help. Getting their life back to normal requires tremendous effort, time, and perseverance.
How do I get rid of a gambling addiction?
It’s hard to fix something you don’t understand, so to get rid of a gambling problem, you need to first admit you have one and get educated about it. Be honest with yourself and your loved ones about your issues, and spell out the negative impact it has on all your lives.
The next step is seeking professional help and a suitable support community, both of which can offer shared experiences, education, and useful strategies, and thus the help you need for gambling addiction. To stay on the right track, avoid places and activities linked to gambling, and find healthy replacement activities to shift your focus from all the hurt you may have caused towards the good things in your life.
What does gambling do to your brain?
Scientific evidence supports the idea that gambling disorders are similar to other addictions, as neurochemical and neuroimaging studies have revealed common traits and processes between them. Evidence shows that gambling activates the brain’s reward system the same way narcotics do.
The blood flow through the ventral striatum and the prefrontal cortex of the brain of people struggling with gambling addiction changes during gambling activity. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is in charge of decision-making, cognitive impulse control, and numerous studies have shown that this area’s activity is diminished for both drug addicts and problem gamblers in response to gambling or drug-related cues.