Gambling is enjoyed by millions of people around the world. For most who choose to enjoy a wager, it never becomes more than an enjoyable hobby. However, some people may find that they cannot control their gambling habits. When gambling goes beyond harmless fun and begins creating serious problems in someone's life, they may be showing signs of gambling addiction.
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What is Gambling Addiction?
Gambling addiction is classed as a mental health condition. It has similarities to other addictions (such as a chemical drug addiction) and other impulse-control disorders (such as pyromania or kleptomania).
In all of these cases, the person with the addiction cannot stop their behavior even when they realize it is hurting themselves or their loved ones. It is important to remember that not everyone suffering from gambling addiction will experience the same symptoms or level of intensity. A few of the most common types of gambling addiction are as follows.
Compulsive gambling is when someone is simply unable to control their desire to gamble.
A compulsive gambler will continue to play whether they win or lose, regardless of the consequences
They will also look for opportunities to make bets and wagers even when they already know they cannot afford to lose
This is also known as pathological gambling
Binge gambling is when someone exhibits compulsive gambling symptoms, but only at certain times or during certain periods.
A binge gambler may appear to be in control of their problem most of the time
They might go weeks or months without exhibiting any signs of having a gambling addiction
Their compulsive gambling behaviors will reveal themselves when they start betting, even if it's only rarely
Problem gambling is when someone is not addicted to the point of compulsion, but their habits are not entirely under their control.
A problem gambler will have some sort of gambling behavior which is disturbing their normal life
They might find themselves chasing losses or lying to loved ones about their betting habits
They come to realize that they cannot stop themselves from gambling more and more often
What are the Signs of Gambling Addiction in Adults?
The latest diagnosis criteria (2018) for compulsive gambling disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, is based on at least four of the following signs being present in someone within the past year. These symptoms shouldn't be considered if they are the result of a separate mental health condition.
Needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money to achieve the desired excitement
Being restless or irritable when trying to cut down or stop gambling
Having repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back on or stop gambling
Frequently thinking about gambling (such as reliving past gambling experiences, planning the next gambling venture, thinking of ways to get money to gamble)
Often gambling when feeling distressed such as when depressed, guilty, anxious, or helpless
After losing money gambling, often returning to get even (referred to as 'chasing your losses')
Lying to conceal gambling activity or losses/damages caused by gambling
Jeopardizing or losing a significant relationship, job or educational/career opportunity because of gambling
Relying on others to help with money problems caused by gambling
Source: American Psychiatric Association
Please remember that simply looking at this list will not be enough to determine whether you have a gambling addiction. In order to make an accurate diagnosis, you should seek out a mental health professional such as a therapist or psychiatrist. It is important that a professional is consulted in order to accurately diagnose and rule out other mental health conditions that may be the cause of these behaviors. This is because individuals with gambling addictions tend to have higher rates of other disorders such as substance use disorders, depressive disorders, and anxiety disorders. Furthermore, in order to make an accurate diagnosis, a trained physician must do a complete evaluation to check that another medical condition is not the cause of these behaviors.
What Causes Gambling Addiction?
Nobody knows the exact cause, but many factors can be involved. Although there are links between family gambling behavior, cause and effect cannot be determined. Other factors to take into account are mental health conditions (such as substance use disorder), the age you start gambling, and how big your first wins are.
One of the major causes of problem gambling is biological in nature, as some aspects of compulsive gambling are like those in other addictions. Brain imaging has shown that a gambling win can produce a neurological response similar to when someone with a cocaine addiction receives a dose of the drug. Deficiencies in norepinephrine (a chemical linked to stress and dangerous situations) and serotonin (a chemical linked to your happiness and wellbeing) have also been related to compulsive behaviors. There are even risk factors which mean people may be genetically predisposed to develop impulse or addiction disorders, as found by genetic studies.
Indirect causes, such as the way an individual thinks about gambling, may have a role in whether that person develops a problem. Many believe that the so-called Gambler's fallacy provides a seemingly logical rationalization for compulsive behavior.
The Gambler's fallacy is the belief that a series of independent events will affect the odds of future independent events. For instance, if a fair coin is flipped five times, and lands on heads each time, the odds of the next flip resulting in a tails is still 50% - the coin is fair. However, the Gambler's fallacy dictates that the coin is more likely to land on tails in the upcoming flips to 'make up for' the previous results. This can provide additional motivation for a compulsive gambler to chase losses, believing that their luck must change soon.
Individuals with gambling addictions often have distorted thinking. Some examples of this are being in denial about the severity of their gambling habits, having superstitions, minimizing losses, and being overly confident about the outcome of future events.
It has also been observed that fast-paced games are more likely to illicit problem behaviors - a slot machine with rapid bet placement, for instance, might be more attractive to those with a problem than a lottery that can only be played once per day.
Another factor of this may stem from outside sources causing these behaviors to manifest. Stress, or difficulties in one's personal or professional life may trigger behavior in someone with a gambling problem, although are not necessarily the cause of such compulsions. The sociological environment which you are surrounded by can also put you at risk. Gambling dependency and addiction may also be heightened in times of social isolation or when you cannot leave the house.
There are relationships also to be found between gambling problems and depression, distress, loneliness, life events and low social support from friends. Gambling addiction tends to run in families, the attributes can be passed on or may influence younger members of the family in terms of the way they are brought up with this around them.
There are also several risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing a gambling problem. Those who have addictions to alcohol or drugs have shown increased vulnerability to compulsive gambling. Several psychological disorders have also been identified as risk factors for gambling addictions, including personality disorders, depressive disorders and anxiety disorders.
Recognizing You Have a Problem
If you are already aware of your problem, if you feel a problem developing, or your friends or family have voiced concerns about you having a problem: seek help.
It might seem as though the signs of gambling problems are obvious, particularly to those who bet compulsively, but it is surprisingly common for both gamblers and those around them to miss them. This is true in part because many of the issues involved with problem gambling can be rationalized by the person themselves, sometimes effectively masking the problem.
While definitions of gambling addiction and problem gambling vary around the world and between organizations, most professionals agree on the signs and symptoms associated with the disorder.
The American Association of Psychiatry recommend certain very basic self-help strategies to help with cravings if you feel the signs of a problem becoming prevalent.
Reach out for support by confiding in a trusted friend or going to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting
Distract yourself with other activities that you enjoy - avoid isolation by looking for healthy ways to socialize
Postpone your gambling by giving yourself a longer period to wait (it may allow the urge to pass or weaken)
Try to give yourself a reality check - imagine what will happen after you gamble, and the way it makes you feel
How to Stop Gambling Addiction: Getting Treatment
There are many ways in which a compulsive gambler might seek treatment. There is no single treatment that is considered as the standard way to treat gambling addiction.
Therapy and Counselling
The most effective component to treating a gambling problem appears to be psychotherapy. With the help of a trained professional, counseling has a relatively high success rate in improving problem behaviors. One reason why this approach may be particularly successful is the fact that many individuals who have a gambling addiction often have another psychiatric problem. This means that in addition to treating the addiction, a psychologist or psychiatrist may be able to help with related mental health issues.
While no medications have been specifically designed to treat gambling addiction, some have shown promise in reducing the urge to wager, or the feelings of excitement that come while betting. These include antidepressants, anti-seizure medications, medications that have been used to address other addictions, and certain SSRIs.
Group Support and Self-Help
Another important resource for those with gambling problems is Gamblers' Anonymous (GA). In conjunction with psychotherapy, GA has been found to help many of those recovering by allowing them to talk about their challenges and experiences with others who have gone through similar situations. Self-help efforts and peer support systems have also been shown to aid in recovery, whether or not these are in conjunction with professional help.
How Common is Gambling Addiction?
It is difficult to find out the exact percentage of the population suffering from problem gambling or an addiction. To diagnose such a problem, the first step often has to come from self-reporting by gamblers themselves. There have been many efforts to estimate the scope of the problem. Most of these studies have come to similar conclusions in recent years.
In the USA, the most commonly reported rates for problem gambling tend to be in the range of 2-3%. An addiction to gambling is somewhat rarer, with 1% or less of the population usually being considered to truly suffer from this condition. Not surprisingly, these figures are higher in areas such as Nevada where gambling plays a big part in the culture. The state has a dedicated organization for problem gambling. Another interesting demographic is that reports of problem gambling and gambling addiction occur in men more than women.
It is equally difficult to pinpoint how many people seek treatment. While resources for those who find they have problems are readily available, many don't seek out organizations or information to help them. Some people may eventually overcome their gambling issue through changes in their behavior, while many others continue to suffer for years or even decades without seeking help.
Negative Effects of Gambling
Some of the negative effects of gambling are readily apparent, while others may be less obvious.
Of course, constant betting can lead individuals into severe financial trouble. A compulsive gambler can quickly accrue large debts, perhaps even resulting in poverty due to the strain from the costs of gambling, the loss of a home, or even complete bankruptcy. Financial problems can even lead to legal issues, as some compulsive gamblers will resort to theft or other means in order to finance their habit.
One of the most important negative effects to recognize is the mental strain that gambling problems can put on an individual. The actions taken as a result of the disorder can cause rifts in important relationships or jeopardize a person's career. Many other conditions are linked to a gambling addiction, which can be developed prior to or after suffering from this. Compulsive gambling can also lead to depression or even suicide.
A gambling addiction can also have repercussions on the people closest to the addict. According to statistics, families of those who are suffering from this type of behavior are more likely to experience child abuse or other forms of domestic violence. Even children who don't directly suffer from their parents' problem gambling may later develop issues such as depression, substance abuse, or behavioral problems.
Problem Gambling & Addiction: Myths vs. Facts
Myth: Gambling is only a problem if the person gambling cannot afford his or her losses.
Fact: While financial troubles are a common and serious consequence of gambling addiction, someone can have a serious problem without financial hardship. It could for instance be causing someone to ignore work or their relationships.
Myth: If someone gambles only occasionally, they cannot be a problem gambler.
Fact: Gamblers may miss the signs of their behavior becoming compulsive if they only gamble on certain occasions, such as a particular sports season or trip to a casino. However, if the wagering they do at these times fits the criteria for compulsive gambling, there still may be a problem.
Myth: Responsible people don't have gambling problems.
Fact: An addiction can develop in anyone, it is not related to how responsibly that person normally behaves. While gambling may lead someone to take irresponsible actions, it does not mean this person is generally irresponsible in life. It's a disorder that leads to a loss of control.
Myth: Children and young people are not affected by problem gambling, only adults can suffer from this.
Fact: Not only are children and young people spending more and more money on gambling in recent years (especially because of mobile gaming), they can also be affected in the sense that a close family member who is a gambler might indirectly influence their attitude to gambling later in life.
Myth: One way to help a loved one with a gambling problem is by paying off their debts or helping them out of their financial troubles.
Fact: Although difficult for relatives and close friends to accept, it is often counterproductive to pay off the debts of a someone with gambling problems. Rather than solving the problem, it will allow them to feel they have a safety net should they find themselves in financial trouble again. It might cause them to place yet more bets.
How to Help Someone with a Gambling Addiction
It can sometimes be difficult to tell if a loved one has a gambling problem. For instance, these are some initial signs that something could be wrong if you notice that someone you care about:
has started clearly lying about their gambling
is letting relationships with you or others deteriorate in order to wager more
begins to state or suggest that they might have a gambling problem
has started borrowing money regularly, or has been taking money or selling items
is spending more and more time gambling
spends money gambling despite unpaid bills or lack of necessities like food
Then it's probably time to take them seriously. They may be looking for help but are afraid to ask or fully admit the extent of the problem. Once you realize a friend or relative has a problem, it's important not to be seen as judgmental or threatening to the person with the gambling problem.
One of the most important steps that can be taken by family and friends of a compulsive gambler is to educate themselves. You must be supportive, make sure that you're not doing anything to enable the gambler and participate in the treatment process as appropriate. For instance, while you shouldn't offer to pay off their gambling debts - as this would enable their behavior - you might help them find financial counseling or other services that could help them with those debts.
Helping someone seek treatment
There's no guaranteed way to convince someone to seek treatment, but it can often help to let them know how their wagering has affected their life, and the lives of those around them.
One method that is often used is an intervention. This is where family and/or close friends confront the compulsive gambler to voice their concern with their behavior. While alone these interventions are rarely successful in changing behavior, they can be invaluable in convincing someone who needs help to seek it. The tone of any such intervention should be positive and loving yet concerned. At no point should the tone of these messages be confrontational or heated. While interventions can be conducted by the family and loved ones themselves, it is suggested to seek guidance and support from a professional interventionist.