I Have a Gambling Addiction Problem: Diagnosis and Resources
If you or a loved one is dealing with a gambling addiction, there are many resources to treat and overcome it. Explore common symptoms and read about the many resources out there to overcome this illness.
Gambling addiction: it’s a scary thing. Whether you have a loved one with a gambling problem or you are struggling to cope with a gambling addiction, it can lead to feelings of despair and being out of control. Fortunately, you’re not alone. Right now, experts estimate that about 1% of the adult population of the U.S. has a gambling problem. What’s more, research shows that about 6-9% of young people experience gambling-related issues, which means they’re more at risk than adults. If you think you may have a gambling disorder, there is help. In this post, we’ll break down the symptoms of a gambling problem, what to do if you think you might have one, and where to turn for help.
First Things First – What is a Gambling Problem?
While some people may struggle with compulsive feelings around gambling, that doesn’t necessarily mean one has an actual gambling problem. In fact, a pathological gambling problem is hard for some people to define. To clear any confusion, here’s how the American Psychiatric Association defines a gambling disorder:
“Gambling disorder involves repeated problematic gambling behavior that causes significant problems or distress. It is also called gambling addiction or compulsive gambling. For some people gambling becomes an addiction — the effects they get from gambling are similar to effects someone with alcoholism gets from alcohol. They can crave gambling the way someone craves alcohol or other substances. Compulsive gambling can lead to problems with finances, relationships, and work, not to mention potential legal issues. People with gambling disorders often hide their behavior. They may lie to family members and others to cover up their behavior and turn to others to help with financial problems. Some gamblers are seeking excitement or action in gambling, others are looking more for escape or numbing.”
If the above sounds familiar, you may be struggling with a gambling disorder. If that definition doesn’t quite sound like it matches your symptoms, you may be experiencing problem gambling instead. Problem gambling is a less severe form of gambling issue but can still be troubling. Problem gambling is regarded as any behavior that disrupts your life or causes you strife. For example, if you find that you feel preoccupied with gambling or are spending more time or money on it than you’d like, despite severe consequences, you may be experiencing problem gambling.
Gambling Addiction, by the Numbers
Gambling addiction can be challenging to understand. Here are some things to know about gambling disorders, according to the National Center for Responsible Gambling (NCRG):
- There are many terms used to describe gambling problems. They include pathological gambling, compulsive gambling, problem gambling, and probable problem gambling. Currently, the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) recommends the term “gambling disorder.”
- About 1% of U.S. adults have a severe gambling disorder.
- Recent research indicates that 6-9% of young adults have problems related to gambling. This rate is much higher than the rate among adults.
- While more research is needed, initial research shows that ethnic and racial minorities experience gambling problems at higher rates than the general population.
- Physicians use similar criteria to diagnose gambling disorders as they do alcohol and drug dependence: withdrawal symptoms if the gambling is stopped or reduced, a compulsive inability to cease gambling, increasing tolerance, and habits like chasing losses and other issues unique to gambling disorders.
- People who experience gambling problems often have various risk factors, including psychiatric problems, an unstable home life, and a lack of friends or community support.
- According to the National Comorbidity Survey Replication, 96.3% of lifetime pathological gamblers also met lifetime criteria for one or more of the other psychiatric disorders.
- There is no research to show that games like online poker or slot machines are more addictive than others. People can develop addictions to many kinds of gambling, from sports betting and the lottery to bingo and casino games.
- Currently, there is no standard treatment defined for gambling disorders. However, therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, and drug treatments appear to be effective.
- People with gambling problems recover; in fact, approximately one-third recover independently, without professional treatment.
Do you Have a Gambling Addiction? Common Triggers to be Aware of
Gambling addiction does not discriminate. Nobody can predict who will develop problematic gambling behavior. Many people who develop problematic gambling behavior are otherwise reliable, responsible, dependable people. There are, however, factors that may trigger a gambling problem or lead to a worsening in existing gambling behavior. These include:
- Retirement or job loss
- A traumatic event or experience
- Periods of stress, either personal or professional
- Periods of emotional intensity, such as bouts of anxiety and depression
- The effects of other addictions, including alcoholism and drug use
- Being with friends who are “a bad influence”
- Available opportunities
Some studies have shown that people who have addictive personalities may be more at risk of developing a host of addictions, including gambling problems. According to American Addictions Centers (AAC), the traits of an addictive personality are as follows:
- Related to others who have developed an addiction
- Experiencing other mental health disorders
- Adventurous and risk-taking
- Disconnected and cautious
- Obsessive and compulsive
- Unable to self-regulate
Diagnosing Gambling Addiction
To properly diagnose gambling addictions, physicians look for at least four of the following over the past year:
- The need to gamble with larger and larger sums of money to achieve a feeling of intense excitement.
- Feelings of irritability or restlessness when the person tries to control or stop gambling.
- Repeated, unsuccessful efforts to eliminate, cut back on, or control the gambling impulse.
- Obsessive or frequent thoughts about gambling, including planning an upcoming gambling adventure, relieving or replaying old gambling experiences, or plotting how to obtain more money for gambling.
- A tendency to gamble more when feeling distressed, anxious, or depressed.
- Returning to the gambling table to “get even” after losing money. This is commonly called “chasing a loss.”
- Lying or omitting facts to hide gambling from loved ones.
- Putting significant relationships, jobs or educational opportunities, or health or wellbeing at risk because of gambling.
- Borrowing or stealing money from others to support the gambling habit.
People with gambling disorders may experience periods where symbols lessen or alleviate between periods of intense and disruptive symptoms. While gambling disorder has a genetic aspect (it tends to “run in the family”), many environmental factors can contribute to or exacerbate a natural tendency. Symptoms may arise in early adolescence, late adulthood, or any time in-between. Both men and women are susceptible.
The Dos and Don’ts for Family Members and Loved Ones
If you have a loved one facing a gambling addiction, you’re probably wondering what to do and how to help. This is a delicate situation, though, and what you do matters just as much as what you don’t do. Here’s a simple guide for what actions to take:
- Seek support. It can be helpful to talk to others who have experienced similar problems. Some people also find it comforting to attend a self-help group for families of gamblers, such as Gam-Anon.
- Recognize the good qualities of your friend or loved one.
- If you want to speak to your friend or loved one about their gambling and how it affects you, stay calm.
- Tell your friend or loved one that you intend to seek help for your mental health and wellbeing because of the way their gambling impacts you.
- If you have children with a person affected by a gambling disorder, take the time to explain problem gambling carefully and compassionately to the children.
- Understand how critical gambling treatment may be for your loved one.
- Protect the finances by stepping in to manage money, reviewing bank and credit card statements, and cutting off shared accounts, if needed.
- Allow yourself to become angry or slip into lecture mode.
- Showcase your hurt by excluding the gambler from daily family life and activities, as this may only exacerbate the gambling problem.
- Expect that the gambler’s recovery will be fast or that all the underlying problems will end once the gambling stops.
- Bail the gambler out or lend him or her money.
- Deny the existence of the problem to yourself or others, or cover up the problem for the gambler.
In some cases, counseling may be helpful for family members struggling with someone who gambles. Any form of addiction, including gambling addiction, is stressful for both the addicted person and the people who love him or her.
Counseling can help you see the person’s strengths and remember why you love him or her. It can also help you decide which actions you need to take to protect yourself and maintain your health and wellbeing.
Gambling Addiction and Suicide
There’s a strong correlation between problematic gambling behavior and suicide. A recent study conducted by Academics at Lund University in Sweden found that people with gambling addiction problems are 15 times more likely to commit suicide than people without gambling addictions. Specifically:
The study found that suicide rates increased 19-fold among men between the ages of 20 and 49 if they had a gambling problem and by 15 times among men and women of all ages.
If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide, it’s essential to take the situation seriously. For more help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Myths and Facts About Having a Gambling Addiction
There’s a lot of misinformation about gambling problems. Below, we bust some of the most common myths and provide a straight answer instead:
|Myth: You only have a gambling problem if you gamble every day. |
Fact: People with gambling problems may gamble frequently or infrequently. Gambling is defined as a problem if it causes problems in a person’s life.
|Myth: As long as the gambler has enough money to support their gambling habit, gambling is not a problem. |
Fact: The problems caused by excessive gambling go far beyond the financial. For example, people who spend excessive time gambling may experience relationship issues, legal issues, job loss, anxiety, and depression, and are at increased risk of suicide.
|Myth: You can only develop a gambling problem if you are irresponsible or weak-willed. |
Fact: Gambling problems do not discriminate. They are just as likely to impact people with a history of responsibility and strong will as they are anyone else.
|Myth: If a person’s partner develops a gambling problem, it’s likely the partner’s fault. |
Fact: People with gambling addictions (and other addictions) try to offset the shame of the addiction by justifying their behavior, and blaming others is a standard tool. While blaming their partner may help the gambler avoid taking responsibility, it is not an accurate reflection of the underlying issue causing the gambling problem.
|Myth: If you love a problem gambler who creates gambling debts, you owe it to that person to pay the debt and bail them out. |
Fact: Gambling can be a shameful experience, and it’s tempting to opt for a quick-fix solution that may appear to be the right thing to do. If you bail a gambler out of debt, though, you may inadvertently make the situation worse by enabling their destructive behavior to go on.
Self-Help for Gambling Problems
Overcoming a gambling problem is a process, and the most significant step is acknowledging you have a problem in the first place. If you have lost a great deal of money or lost essential relationships along the way, this step requires a tremendous amount of courage. Don’t worry – you don’t need to go it alone. Many people have been in your exact position. To start recovering from your gambling addiction, take these steps:
Learn to cope with distressing feelings
Does your gambling get worse when you feel lonely, bored, anxious, or stressed out? For many people, gambling is a way to self-soothe during distressing moments. Fortunately, it’s not the only way to do that. There are many healthier ways to manage your moods and keep yourself feeling stable. We recommend exercising, spending time with friends or family members who do not gamble, learning a new hobby, or practicing mindfulness or other relaxation techniques.
ASK FOR SUPPORT!!
A support network is critical for anyone trying to overcome gambling addiction. With this in mind, reach out to friends, family, or members of a gambling support group. Alternately, consider joining hobby groups (like a book club or soccer team) or volunteering for a cause you believe in. The more non-gambling support tactics you master, the less likely you are to continue struggling with compulsive gambling behaviors.
Join a support group
While seeking non-gambling support is important, it’s also critical to participate in a peer support group specifically focused on gambling addictions. To find one near you, consult the state-by-state meeting list for Gamblers Anonymous or speak to a local health-care professional.
Get professional help
If you feel your gambling addiction is severe or will be challenging to overcome, enlist the help of a professional therapist. Underlying mood disorders, like depression, stress, anxiety, or substance abuse, can trigger or exacerbate gambling problems. Even after you’ve kicked the gambling disorder, the underlying mood disorders may persist, so it’s wise to plan for this and have professional support at the ready.
Gambling Addiction Treatment
If you or a loved one struggles with a gambling problem, it can be challenging to see the other side, where recovery is possible. One of the best ways to get into recovery is to seek professional treatment. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of stigma around mental health services and treatment. Seeking professional treatment does not mean that you are weak or unable to handle your life independently. Gambling addictions are a complex problem, and professional help can be necessary to navigate them.
Remember: every gambler is unique, and no two recovery paths are structured the same way. To find the best option for you, talk to a doctor or mental health professional about treatment options, including the following:
Residential or inpatient treatment and rehabilitation programs. These programs cater to people with severe gambling addictions, who are vulnerable to relapsing into their gambling habits unless they have 24/7 support. These programs offer an intensive combination of therapies, including treatment for underlying conditions that may influence or lead to compulsive gambling (such as substance abuse, depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD, or bipolar disorder, which problem gambling is sometimes a symptom of). These programs typically also include aspects of talk therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy. According to the American Psychological Association, “Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychological treatment that has been demonstrated to be effective for a range of problems including depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug use problems, marital problems, eating disorders and severe mental illness. Numerous research studies suggest that CBT leads to significant improvement in functioning and quality of life. In many studies, CBT has been demonstrated to be as effective as or more effective than other forms of psychological therapy or psychiatric medications.” For gamblers, CBD treatment may identify and change unhealthy gambling patterns and identify ways to cope with gambling urges.
Family and marriage therapy and financial counseling. These treatments are ideal for helping gamblers sort through the issues created by habitual gambling and lay the foundation for a life spent in recovery.
There is Hope After Gambling Addiction
If you’re struggling with a gambling addiction, you don’t have to navigate it alone. The tips in this article can help you navigate the experience. If you need additional help, we’ve provided a list of resources at the end of this article.
Resources for People With Gambling Addictions
SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
American Psychiatric Association: https://www.psychiatry.org/
National Center for Responsible Gaming: https://www.icrg.org/
NATIONAL PROBLEM GAMBLING HELPLINE: 1-800-522-4700