Gambling Addiction Guide

Gambling is enjoyed as a hobby by people all over the world, who find entertainment in the occasional bet or wager. However, when gambling goes beyond being just a fun hobby to being a habit that the individual cannot control and starts causing serious problems in their life, that person may have developed a gambling addiction.

Addiction to gambling is a mental health disorder and is similar to other addictions.

What is a Gambling Addiction?

Similarly to other impulse-control disorders, an individual with a gambling addiction is unable to stop their addictive behaviour, even when they recognise that it is harmful to themselves or those they care about. This is a multi-faceted issue, so individuals afflicted may experience different symptoms with different intensities. It is important to realise not all problem gamblers are alike, and neither are the issues they face. A few common forms of gambling addiction include:

  • Compulsive Gambling: Sometimes also known as pathological gambling, this is what most people think of when hearing the term 'gambling addiction'. A compulsive gambler has very little or even no control over their gambling habits. They will play whether or not they lose and will seek out opportunities to make wagers and bets, disregarding any consequences.
  • Problem Gambling: In this case, an addiction to gambling may not result in compulsions however, the person affected may find that their desire to gamble is not entirely within their control. While the desire to gamble is not a severe as it is with compulsive gambling, problem gambling can still have a large negative impact on a person's normal life. A problem gambler may find themselves lying to those they love about their betting habits, chasing losses (trying to win back the money they have lost) or begin to realise that they are gambling more and more often.
  • Binge Gambling: A binge gambler only exhibits compulsive gambling symptoms at certain times, and may appear to have complete control over their gambling habits, going for long periods of time - weeks, or even months - without showing any signs of being a problem gambler. However, once they start betting Binge gamblers will reveal these compulsive behaviours, even if they rarely gamble.

Are Gambling Addictions Common?

As you might expect, pinpointing the scope of such a problem is difficult, as self-reporting by gamblers themselves is vital to figure out exactly how much of the population is affected with problem or compulsive gambling. However, this hasn't stopped researchers from estimating the problem's extent and the conclusions of such studies are strikingly similar.

Reported rates for cases of problem gambling are commonly found to be within the range of 2-3% of the population, while true sufferers of the rarer pathological gambling comprise 1% or less of the population. Unsurprisingly, reports from places where gambling makes up a large part of the culture have been found to produce significantly higher figures.

An example of this would be a survey of Nevada Adults conducted in 2002 which found that 3-4% of the population were likely to be pathological gamblers, though the continually expanding availability of live and online casinos has caused the difference between these figures has grown smaller.

Figuring out the number of people affected by problem gambling who actually seek treatment is another challenge. It is likely that most of these people do not seek out treatment, even though there are many organisations and other resources readily available to them, and while some are able to overcome the problem on their own through behavioural changes, others suffer for years without looking for help.

What is the Cause of Problem Gambling?

While it is clear that gambling disorders are caused by a person's lack of control over their behaviour, there are many different underlying factors that cause this problem. What these factors are varies between individuals.

Biology has been identified as a major cause behind problem gambling. Compulsive gambling has been shown to share some similar aspects with other addiction disorders, and it has been shown through brain imaging that the neurological response produced when a cocaine addict receives a dose of the drug is highly similar to that of a compulsive gambler when they experience a gambling win.

Those with deficiencies in the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin have been found to have a higher likelihood of displaying compulsive behaviors. Other risk factors such as addiction to alcohol and certain drugs, as well several psychological disorders including schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorder have been shown to lead to an increase an individual's vulnerability to problem gambling.

How a person thinks about gambling is a factor that can contribute to the development of a gambling problem. One of the commonly recognised rationalizations made by compulsive gamblers is the gambler's fallacy.

The gambler's fallacy is the mistaken belief that a chain of statistically independent events will affect the odds, and therefore outcomes, of future independent events. A common way of demonstrating this fallacy is the use of the example of a coin flip. The odds of a fair coin landing on heads is the same as the odds of it landing on tails - 50% each flip. However, problem gamblers believing in the gambler's fallacy may try to rationalise their behaviour by reasoning that if a fair coin has landed on heads every time it was flipped, it should be more likely to land on tails "making up" for previous results, when in reality, the odd of the coin landing on tails will still be 50%. This belief can cause problem gamblers to chase their losses, thinking that their chances of winning will change to make up for a string of losses.

While stress might trigger compulsive behaviour in a problem gambler, it is widely accepted that outside sources - such as difficulties in an individual's professional or personal life - are not the cause of problem gambling behaviours. Similarly, problem gambling is not directly caused by the availability of casinos or other means of legal gambling, as those suffering from compulsive gambling will continue to find means to make bets or wagers even in the absence of legalised gambling. It has, however, been noted that problem habits are more likely to occur in games that are fast-paced than in games that can be played only once-a-day.

Recognising When You Have a Problem

It is more common than you might think for the signs of a gambling problem to be missed by both the gamblers and those close to them. This is often because problem gamblers manage to convince themselves and others that their behaviour is not a problem, and may hide their habits from those around them.

The symptoms of a gambling disorder are widely agreed upon, though the definition of problem gambling may differ between organisations. Ten commonly used criteria to diagnose a gambling problem, used by the American Psychiatric Association, are as follows:

The person:

  1. Constantly thinks about gambling.
  2. Feels they need to increase the amount they wager to maintain the thrill of betting.
  3. Shows signs of agitation when they cut back on gambling.
  4. Uses gambling as a means to escape from their problems or relieve anxiety.
  5. Attempts to win back any money they have lost (this is known as "chasing losses").
  6. Lies in order to hide their gambling activity.
  7. Uses illegal means to finance their betting habits.
  8. Puts important relationships in jeopardy to gamble.
  9. Relies on others (friends, family members) to pay of debts.
  10. Fails to control or put a stop to their gambling.

A person does not have to meet all of these criteria in order to be diagnosed as having a gambling problem. An individual must show at lest five of these symptoms in order to be considered a pathological gambler, without them being a result of a different mental health problem.

While showing the symptoms on this list may indicate that an individual may need to closely examine their gambling habits, a diagnoses cannot be made without the evaluation of a trained physician. This evaluation could include a physical exam as a mental health evaluation.

The Negative Effects of Problem Gambling

While some of gambling's negative effects are evident, others may be more obscure. Excessive gambling can quickly lead to a compulsive gambler building up large debts. Sometimes these debts become so severe that the end result is poverty, loss of a home and in some cases complete bankruptcy. This serious financial strain may give rise to the gambler turning to theft in order to fund their habit, resulting in legal repercussions.

Sometimes less apparent, but incredibly important to recognise is the negative effects problem gambling has on the mental health of the affected individual. Their actions can put a strain on the gambler's relationships, threaten their career and, in severe cases, compulsive gambling can lead to depression or suicide.

Families of compulsive gamblers are also often affected by the addict's habits. Statistically, these families are more likely to experience domestic violence, including child abuse and even the children who aren't directly affected by their parents' gambling addiction are more likely to develop behavioural problems, depression or substance abuse later in life.

Finding Help and Getting Better

There are many ways in which a compulsive gambler can be treated for their problem and, just as no two individuals suffer from problem gambling in the same way, there is no singular treatment that is considered standard.

Psychotherapy appears to be the most effective and successful way to treat those suffering with a gambling addiction. The majority of those with a gambling problem have at least one additional mental health issue, so counseling through a trained psychologist or psychiatrist may not only help to correct their behavioural problem, but help to treat the related psychiatric problem as well.

Gamblers' Anonymous (GA) is an important resource for those with a gambling problem. GA helps by giving individuals an outlet to talk to others enduring similar situations about their experiences and challenges. While it is most useful to use these peer support systems and self-help efforts in conjunction with professional counseling, up to one-third of problem gamblers have been able recover without seeking formal treatment.

Some medications, including antidepressants, medications used to treat addiction, anti-seizure medications and some SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors), while not specifically designed to help with gambling addiction, have been found to reduce urges to wager and excitement from betting.

Problem Gambling: Myths and Facts

Fact: A person can still have a problem even if they don't encounter financial hardship. Problem gambling leads to other issues as well, potentially causing the gambler to ignore things important to them, such as their relationships, career and other activities.

Fact: While the signs of compulsive gambling may be missed if the person only gambles occasionaly, this doesn't mean they do not have a problem. If the gambling still negatively affects their life, or they show signs of compulsive gambling, they may still have a problem.

Fact: Anyone can develop a gambling problem, it is not a sign that the person normally behaves irresponsibly. A person who is generally very responsible may take irresponsible actions, as problem gambling is a disorder which leads to a person losing control over their behaviour.

Fact: The friends and family of a problem gambler are not responsible for the individual's behaviour, even if the gambler tries to use this a a means to justify their behaviour.

Fact: While this may seem to be a good way to help a problem gambler out of their financial troubles, it is often counterproductive. The gambler may feel that they now have someone to fall back on if they encounter financial trouble again and will continue to place bets.

How You Can Help an Individual with Problem Gambling Behaviour

It isn't always easy to tell if someone you care about has a gambling problem though if you suspect there may be a problem, your help can be invaluable to a person struggling with a gambling addiction.

The criteria given above can be a useful tool to look for signs of a problem in a loved one. It may be easy to spot signs of trouble, such as if a person clearly has begun lying about the extent of their gambling. Additionally, if they begin to suggest - even jokingly - that they might have a gambling problem, it is likely that something may seriously be wrong, but they afraid to ask for help.

It is vital for friends and family to, first and foremost, take steps to educate themselves about the problem that their loved one faces, and to be supportive in seeking appropriate treatment. It is important for the problem gambler to know that their relatives are understanding and are not judgmental. While you should make sure that you aren't doing anything that will enable the gambler to continue their behaviour, you should take part in the recovery process if necessary.

It can oftentimes be quite difficult to convince a friend or family member that they have a gambling problem. Even if you are unable to get them to seek treatment, it can still help to let them know the effects their habits are having on the problem gambler's own life the lives of those they care about.

A intervention is often used as a means of addressing the problem of a person's gambling addiction as well as other similar problems. In an intervention, those close to the gambling addict confront them and show their concern regarding the compulsive behaviour. Each person shares an explanation of how the gambler's behaviour has hurt them or their relationship, and these messages should always maintain a concerned, but loving and positive tone. Interventions should never be confrontational or attack the person displaying the problem.

While an intervention rarely causes the problem gambler to change their behaviour, it can be an indispensable way to convince them to realise that they have a problem and to seek help.

Resources for Gambling Addiction

Remember that this article should not be used in place of professional help, so if you or someone you know has a gambling problem, recommends that you contact one of the following organisations or seek professional counseling.

There are many different options available to those who are looking for help in overcoming their gambling addiction. While there is no single form of treatment that is guaranteed to work for everyone, there are plenty of treatments available to help you.Options can vary from group meeting with those in similar situations to therapy with professionally trained doctors and counselors and the use of multiple methods may sometimes be needed.

However, whether you need to immediately talk with someone about your problem, or require professional treatment, you can start with this list of just a few of the countless organisations dedicated to helping those struggling with gambling problems.

  • Gamblers Anonymous: Gamblers Anonymous has support groups that meet all around the world for those who wish to stop gambling. Recovering problem gamblers can follow a 12 step program to avoid relapsing into problem behaviours. In addition to providing support for those who are problem gamblers, Gam-Anon and Gam-A-Teen are groups available to the loved ones and children of compulsive or problem gamblers.
  • The National Council on Problem Gambling(NCPG): Independent from the gambling industry, this website provides an invaluable resource of information on problem gambling, options for treatment, and counselors in the US who specialise in treating those affected by compulsive gambling.
  • National Gambling Helpline Network: Run by the National Council on Problem Gambling(NCPG), this hotline offers those struggling with problem gambling information on locally available resources for problem gamblers and loved ones. (800-522-4700)
  • GamCare: This United Kingdom charity is industry-funded and offers problem gamblers in the UK positive guidance and counseling. The GamCare UK Help Line can be reached at 0808 8020 113.