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Recognizing and Overcoming Gambling Addiction

Brittany Thompson, MSMFT

Medically reviewed by

Brittany Thompson, MSMFT

March 5, 2019

Studies have found new links between people suffering from gambling addiction and substance abuse. Effective treatment for these addictions often requires professional care and individualized treatment plans.

The Prevalence Of Gambling Addiction shares that, in the U.S. alone, more than 1.2 million people struggle with the frequent and sometimes-overwhelming urge to gamble. To put that into perspective, this amount is comparable to the number of people addicted to cocaine or the number of individuals who abuse drugs categorized as amphetamines.

Because this amount represents just 2-3 percent of the population at large, gambling addiction isn’t discussed as feverishly as some other addictions. This creates a problem for those who suffer from this particular affliction and who are looking for help, making it feel as if relief or recovery is harder to find.

However, the first step is recognizing that a problem exists and also understanding how a gambling addiction begins.

How a Gambling Problem Begins

According to Scientific American, this first step hasn’t always been an easy one because “in the past, the psychiatric community generally regarded pathological gambling as more of a compulsion than an addiction—a behavior primarily motivated by the need to relieve anxiety rather than a craving for intense pleasure.” They go on to report that it wasn’t until the 1980s that the American Psychiatric Association formally declared gambling addiction an actual disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

This change came about based on research that found that gambling affects the brain in much the same way as drugs. By impacting the reward center of the brain (the area associated with pleasure) and increasing dopamine production, excessive gambling can easily become an issue that entices a person to continue to engage in this activity even when they know they shouldn’t.

They are constantly chasing the “high” that gambling gives them.

However, research also suggests that there are some distinct brain-related differences that may present a problem for gamblers, too. One such study was presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) Congress in Berlin in 2014 and further discussed by Medical Daily. It noted that the opioid system in a gambler’s brain tends to respond differently than the opioid system in the brain of someone who doesn’t have a gambling issue.

Specifically, it found that individuals with gambling problems experienced a less euphoric effect after being given amphetamines, which may partially explain how a gambling problem begins—by having a greater difficulty experiencing the happiness and excitement that other people feel. But what exactly is a gambling addiction?

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Gambling Addiction Defined

The National Council on Problem Gambling defines a gambling disorder using diagnostic criteria as provided by the DSM-5 (the 5th Edition of the DSM manual). The DSM-5 states that this type of disorder involves a “persistent and recurrent problematic gambling behavior leading to clinically significant impairment or distress…”.

Furthermore, the DSM-5 indicates that a gambling disorder is characterized by engaging in a set of specific behaviors, some of which are:

  • gambling with more and more money over time
  • making unsuccessful attempts to gain control over one’s gambling habit
  • lying about gambling-related behaviors and actions
  • experiencing negative effects in other areas of life (relationships, jobs, etc.) due to gambling behaviors.

According to the DSM-5, if four or five of these behaviors or consequences exist within a one-year time frame, the gambling disorder is characterized as mild. Meeting six or seven of their listed criteria within one year means the disorder is moderate, and if eight or all nine of the criteria are met, the gambling disorder is considered severe.

Gambling Addiction Risk Factors

Research has found that certain factors can place a person at higher risk of developing a gambling type of addiction. For example, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Adolescence found that young boys are at higher risk of becoming addicted to gambling than young girls. Additionally, adolescent use of alcohol may increase the risk of gambling addiction as well.

Another study, this one published in European Addiction Research in 2012, revealed that “problematic gambling was associated with all three types of substance use.” It was referring specifically to alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis use, and the likelihood that someone who uses these substances will develop an issue with gambling.

Gambling Addiction and Substance Abuse Combined

This same finding of gambling addiction and substance abuse combined has been found again and again in research studies around the globe. One study conducted in Germany and published in Psychiatry Research in December 2003 reported that “pathological gamblers showed elevated rates of co-morbid substance use disorders.”

This further complicates the gambling addiction, requiring some type of dual diagnosis treatment that covers both the substance abuse and gambling. Put simply, one problem grows into two or three, making recovery more complex—but not out of the question.

Common Gambling Addiction Myths

Unfortunately, there are many myths surrounding gambling that can make it easier for someone with this affliction to keep placing bets. The Responsible Gambling Council (RGC) identifies a few of them and provides the truth behind these misconceptions. Listed below are some myths about gambling to consider.

  • “Even though I’m losing right now, if I keep going, I’ll get my money back eventually.”
    Each bet is independently made, therefore, you have the same odds of winning (and losing) whether you’re placing your first bet or your fiftieth one. Additionally, it’s difficult to recoup a loss once that loss occurs, leaving you constantly “chasing your loss.”
  • “That was a close one! I know this means a win is ahead!”
    Getting close to winning once is not a good predictor of whether you’ll win or lose in the future. Again, each bet is independent of the last.
  • “The more I gamble, the more I’ll win.”
    While this may seem like good sense, the RGC warns that the opposite is actually true, stating that “the more you gamble, the more you’ll lose.”
  • “I’m going to win today! I can feel it!”
    While gambling sometimes requires a bit of skill, the reality is that gambling, in the end, is “a game of chance.” You can do everything right and still lose it all.

Signs Of A Gambling Problem

How do you know whether gambling is a problem for you? Mayo Clinic offers a few of the signs and symptoms of problematic gambling, including the following:

  • Feeling excited when taking bigger risks
  • Increasing the amount of risk over time
  • Thinking about gambling more often
  • Continuously thinking over previous gambling wins (and losses)
  • Using gambling as a distraction for areas of your life that aren’t going well
  • Using gambling to deal with mental issues, such as depression or anxiety
  • Being dishonest about your gambling behaviors with family or friends
  • Having feelings of guilt or shame associated with your gambling
  • Borrowing money from family or friends to support your habit
  • Stealing from family, friends, employers, or others to continue gambling
  • Experienced previous unsuccessful attempts to curb gambling behaviors
  • Gambling negatively affects relationships, career, or finances

Beginning Steps to Overcoming a Gambling Problem

Depending on your level of addiction, professional help may be necessary to overcome the hold that this particular affliction has on you. However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do right now to help you begin a life in which gambling isn’t such a big part of it. Here are some steps that can help you get started.

  • Step 1: Admit that Gambling is an Issue
    You must first recognize that gambling is an issue in your life before you can begin to overcome it. This means acknowledging that your gambling behaviors are negatively impacting you, whether financially, with your relationships, at your job, or all of the above.
  • Step 2: Have Faith that You Can Kick It
    Even if it feels like your gambling addiction is too big to handle, it’s important to remember that others have managed to kick it—and you can too. It isn’t necessarily going to be easy, but it is possible as long as you continue to work toward that goal.
  • Step 3: Determine Why You Gamble
    To overcome your gambling addiction, you need to know what makes you gamble to begin with. Is it that you like the feeling you get when you gamble? Do you use it as an escape from problems in other areas of your life? What is it about gambling that makes you go back for more? If you’re unsure, a professional can help you uncover why gambling is so appealing to you, making it easier to continue with the healing process.
  • Step 4: Find Other Ways to Deal with Gambling Triggers
    If you discover that anxiety is a trigger for your gambling, then it’s imperative to find other, healthier ways to deal with that emotion, such as exercising, doing breathing exercises, or seeing a therapist. The same is true if you gamble to deal with stress, to avoid going home to an unhappy relationship, or whatever is driving you back for more. Identify the options that are better for you when it comes to dealing with that emotion and keep them handy for times when you get the urge to gamble instead.
  • Step 5: Set Up a Support System
    If you’ve not been honest about your gambling behaviors, this may be a difficult step to take, admitting to loved ones that you have a problem with gambling. But once you do, you’ll likely realize that your family and friends are behind you. They’re there to support you because they love you and only want the best for you. This gives you the support you need when you’re struggling with making positive changes.

Helping Loved Ones With Gambling-Related Issues

Sometimes it isn’t you with a gambling disorder, but rather, someone you love. Watching that person sink further and further into gambling’s hole can be extremely difficult to just stand by and watch. But there are ways you can help.

Band Back Together, a non-profit organization that hopes to “put a voice to the things left unsaid” related to mental health issues, abuse, and loss shares a number of things you can do when it comes to helping loved ones dealing with some type of gambling issue. Below are a few ideas to consider.

Increase your knowledge and understanding of gambling addiction, recognizing it as an illness and not just a behavior.

  • Help the one you love to avoid gambling triggers or handle his or her triggers in healthier ways.
  • If possible, take control of the gambling addict’s finances, so he or she has limited access to cash or credit.
  • Be there for the person during the recovery process; be part of their support system, so they can contact you when they feel the urge to gamble. Encourage and love them every step of the way.
  • Watch the person for signs of depression or suicidal thoughts, two concerns that may become more apparent as the person finds him or herself face-to-face with overcoming gambling issues. If you believe the person is in danger of hurting themselves, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255, and they can walk you through what to do to best help your friend or family member.
  • Get help yourself so you can better understand how this person’s gambling is affecting your life. This also helps you learn how to provide the best support possible without sacrificing yourself or your needs. It may be by going to counseling and/or by joining a support group.
  • Always remember that, in the end, the gambler’s choices and decisions are not yours. You cannot control what he or she does, no matter how much you want to.

What NOT To Do For Someone Who Is A Gambling Addict

Band Back Together also indicates that there are some things you should not do when it comes to helping a loved one with a gambling issue.

  • Don’t lecture or preach
  • Don’t underplay the strength of a gambling disorder
  • Don’t make excuses for him or her
  • Don’t make the gambler’s problems your own
  • Don’t exclude them from your life
  • Don’t let the gambler make you feel sorry for him or her or manipulate you to allow them to gamble
  • Don’t expect a “quick fix”
  • Don’t take the gambler places where gambling is available or encouraged
  • Don’t loan the gambler money
  • Don’t pay the gambler’s debts or otherwise enable the gambler to keep engaging in this type of destructive behavior

Gambling Treatment Options

When it comes to treating gambling addictions, many options exist. Some of the oldest and most well-known ones include engaging in counseling with someone trained specifically in gambling addictions and/or joining a gambling-specific support group.

Research is also finding that mindfulness helps as well. For instance, in a 2014 article published in the Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, the authors share how weekly sessions designed to help gamblers develop a more active awareness in their lives can reduce gambling urges and severity. They can also reduce the related psychological distress these cause, thus leading to “clinically significant change in problem gambling individuals.”

If you have a gambling addiction, help is just a phone call away. The caring and compassionate staff at are here to connect you with the best gambling treatment program for you, based solely on your individual problems and needs.

Medical Daily - Gambling Addicts' Brains Don't Have The Same Opioid Systems As Others

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - DSM­5 Diagnostic Criteria: Gambling Disorder

European Addiction Research - Co-Occurrence of Addictive Behaviours: Personality Factors Related to Substance Use, Gambling and Computer Gaming

ScienceDirect - A prospective study of adolescent risk and protective factors for problem gambling among young adults

ScienceDirect - Comorbid Axis I-disorders among subjects with pathological, problem, or at-risk gambling recruited from the general population in Germany: Results of the PAGE study

Responsible Gambling Council - Common Myths about Gambling

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - Home

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