What is Compulsive Gambling, and How Can You Overcome It?
In This Article
What is a Gambling Addiction?
Gambling addiction, medically known as a gambling disorder, occurs when someone has an uncontrollable urge to gamble despite its negative effects.
Someone with a gambling addiction continues gambling even if they cannot afford it or they are driven to unethical or criminal acts to gamble. People with gambling addiction risk things in their life of great value, including financial well-being relationships, and safety to gamble.
Much like drugs and alcohol, gambling stimulates the brain’s reward system. Chasing the euphoric feeling that occurs when they win leads a gambling addict to spend their savings, borrow and steal, hide their gambling, and accumulate massive debt.
Like drug and alcohol addictions, gambling addiction destroys lives.
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How Do Gambling Addictions Form?
Developing a gambling addiction is a process.
For a gambling addiction to form, someone must be biologically vulnerable to addiction and be exposed to social stressors.
Compulsive gamblers must also have positive gambling exposure. Someone at risk of developing a gambling addiction who only ever loses is less likely to end up addicted because they don’t experience that surge of euphoria from winning.
Causes & Risk Factors of Gambling Addictions
Some of the causes and risk factors of developing a gambling addiction include:
Mental health disorder
People with gambling addiction often, but not always, have other co-occurring disorders.
They might misuse alcohol or drugs, or suffer from anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, or other personality disorders.
Young and middle-aged people have a higher risk of developing a gambling addiction. Even if addiction does not develop early in life, the earlier someone is exposed to gambling the higher their risk of developing an addiction later in life.
Gambling addiction is more common among men than women.
Family and friends
People with relatives who have gambling problems have a higher risk of developing a gambling addiction.
There’s evidence that certain medications increase a person’s risk of compulsive gambling. This includes dopamine antagonists such as medicines for restless leg syndrome and Parkinson’s disease.
People who are impulsive, restless, easily bored, competitive, or workaholics might be more at risk of developing a gambling addiction.
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Signs & Symptoms of a Gambling Addiction
The signs and symptoms of gambling addiction include:
- Preoccupation with gambling
- Gambling with higher and higher amounts of money to achieve the same emotional effect
- Attempting to cut back or stop gambling without success
- Experiencing restlessness or irritability when not gambling or gambling less frequently
- Gambling as a means of escaping other problems in life
- Gambling to self-medicate disorders such as anxiety, guilt, or depression
- Chasing losses – gambling to win back money lost
- Lying to loved ones about gambling behavior
- Continuing to gamble despite financial problems and other negative consequences
- Neglecting or jeopardizing important relationships, careers, and opportunities
- Breaking the law to gamble
- Asking others to support the addiction (asking for money, secrecy, etc.)
If you’re concerned about your gambling behavior or inability to stop gambling, or your loved ones have expressed concern over your gambling, you should seek professional support.
Gambling Addiction vs. Problem Gambling
Problem gambling and gambling addiction are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably. However, they are not the same thing.
Both are on the same continuum and include unhealthy gambling behavior. But problem gambling doesn’t always lead to other problems in someone’s life.
Gambling addiction affects someone’s relationships and health. It disrupts their life. Problem gambling might cause these issues or might eventually develop into a full-blown addiction.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), problem gamblers are people who meet three or more out of 10 criteria for pathological gambling. Addicted gamblers are those who meet five more criteria on the list.
Everyone with a gambling addiction is a problem gambler, but not all problem gamblers have an addiction.
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Alternatives to Gambling
Someone with a full-blown gambling addiction will likely need professional addiction treatment to recover. However, there are many things they can do in addition to professional treatment to help with their addiction.
People with a gambling problem that have not yet or will never become addicts can also use these techniques to curb their gambling behavior.
Some alternatives to gambling include:
- Establishing a consistent exercise routine
- Learn how to make healthy choices
- Adopt a hobby unrelated to gambling
- Build a support system of friends and family, and possibly recovered gamblers, to help you when you feel tempted to gamble
- Share your concerns about your problem gambling or gambling addiction with loved ones
How to Prevent Gambling Addiction
There’s no guaranteed tool or method for preventing gambling addiction. However, understanding your risk and knowing the symptoms of addiction reduces your risk. People who are at high risk of developing a gambling addiction are better off avoiding gambling.
If you suspect you have a gambling problem, even if it’s not a full-blown addiction, seek treatment as soon as possible. Gambling treatment is available for those in the earliest stages of problem gambling or addiction.
How is a Gambling Addiction Diagnosed?
You might suspect you have a gambling addiction before ever speaking to a mental health professional about the issue.
Should you address your concerns with a doctor or other health professional, they will likely:
Ask you about your gambling habits
They might also ask to speak to your friends and family members about gambling. Their goal is to gather information about your situation without overstepping medical privacy concerns.
Assess your medications
Some medications have compulsive gambling as a side effect.
Complete a psychiatric assessment
You’ll discuss with your doctor your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to gambling. Some people have co-occurring mental health issues that play a role in their gambling addiction.
Review the criteria for gambling disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). People with gambling disorders or addictions meet at least five of the 10 criteria listed in the manual.
How to Stop a Gambling Addiction
There are several inpatient and outpatient treatment options available for those with compulsive gambling behaviors or gambling addiction. For example:
Behavioral or cognitive behavioral therapy
This helps you unlearn unhealthy, irrational, or negative beliefs and learn healthy, positive alternatives. It also helps you learn new skills to help you avoid gambling.
Antidepressants and mood stabilizers treat OCD and other co-occurring conditions that put someone at higher risk of developing a gambling addiction.
Some antidepressants also reduce gambling urges. Medications used to treat substance use also help some people with compulsive gambling behavior. Medication can help other therapy options have a higher success rate.
Some people find that certain exercises help them reduce gambling urges or avoid gambling activities.
- Make your primary focus avoiding gambling. Treating not gambling as a project helps you prioritize your desire to not gamble over other tasks.
- Use self-talk to make yourself want to gamble less. Tell yourself gambling is too risky and not worth the potential loss of money and other things of value.
- Allow yourself to seek help. For many people, willpower is not enough to deal with problem gambling. It’s rarely enough to overcome an addiction.
- Avoid situations where you’ll be tempted to gamble. Identify your triggers and find ways to exclude them from your life. If you’re tempted to gamble on sports, don’t watch sports. If you are tempted by slot machines, don’t go to casinos or other locations with slot machines, even if they are the type that don’t “pay out.”
- Speak to trusted loved ones about your gambling issues. Gambling affects more than the gambler in most families. Reaching out to someone when you’re tempted to gamble helps you curb your desire.
Some people find that talking to peers who share their concerns about gambling to be a helpful part of treatment.
Your doctor or treatment provider can give you information about Gamblers Anonymous and support group resources.
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- “Compulsive Gambling - Symptoms and Causes.” Mayo Clinic, 2016, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/compulsive-gambling/symptoms-causes/syc-20355178.
- Zou, Zhiling, et al. “Definition of Substance and Non-Substance Addiction.” Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, vol. 1010, 2017, pp. 21–41, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29098666.
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- “Problem Gambling vs. Gambling Addiction.” Psychology Today, www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/in-excess/202003/problem-gambling-vs-gambling-addiction.
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