Understanding Gambling Addiction
In my early 20s I lived in Southern California, which – for me and my girlfriends – meant a lot of trips to Las Vegas. Within four hours we would be immersed in a city, where entertainment was offered in excess. Dining, dancing and gambling were our preferred diversions. And my game of choice was blackjack. I made it a common practice to sit at the table’s corner chair, scowling at those who sat down during a hand, afraid they would disrupt a winning streak. I would silently judge anyone who would split 10s because even at a $5 table, I took the game seriously. I would look at my cards with calculating intent, replacing my silence with the occasional celebratory hollering when I would win. It was genuinely a good time. And while I never expected to win a lot, I always prepared myself to lose a little, allocating a certain amount of money for each trip. When it was gone, so was I.
Sure, some of my Vegas trips were stained with the occasional twinge of regret, but it never had anything to do with the time I spent playing cards. I always knew when to walk away. I always knew when it was enough. And never did I spend more money than I intended.
But not everyone can say the same.
In fact, more than 2 percent of Americans have a gambling problem, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG). That’s about 10 million people affected by a disorder that can leave them in social and economic ruin.
Often referred to as the “hidden” or “silent” addiction, compulsive gambling can cause significant harm, taking years before the problem is even noticed.
What is Gambling Addiction and What Causes it?
When done in moderation, gambling is socially acceptable.
But when the seemingly harmless activity turns into an uncontrollable urge to continue to gamble despite any negative consequences, that’s when it’s problematic. Gambling addiction causes a person to seek the reward of an action or behavior despite the toll it takes on your life. It’s a behavioral and psychological disorder that is packed with an emotional punch, for the stress involved can lead to anxiety and depression.
Taking the constant risk in hopes of a greater value, can lead to insurmountable debt, theft, fraud, and even imprisonment. It can dismantle relationships, destroy careers and deplete finances. And because of this, people may continue to gamble as a quick way to get their life back, creating a vicious cycle of false hope, debt and despair.
According to Healthline, gambling addiction, like drugs and alcohol, stimulate the brain’s reward system. It raises activity in an area of your brain called the insula, which can lead to distorted thinking. This can “cause you to see patterns in random sequences and continue gambling after near misses.”
And like someone with a drug or alcohol addiction, you’ll begin to crave it, worsening the habit the more you feed it.
Causes and Risk Factors
It is not exactly well-understood what causes gambling addiction, but there are environmental, genetic and biological components that can increase your chances.
According to the Mayo Clinic, certain risk factors that are associated with compulsive gambling include:
- Mental health disorders. People who gamble compulsively often have substance abuse problems, personality disorders, depression or anxiety. Compulsive gambling may also be associated with bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Age. Compulsive gambling is more common in younger and middle-aged people. Gambling during childhood or the teenage years increases the risk of developing compulsive gambling. However, compulsive gambling in the older adult population can also be a problem.
- Sex. Compulsive gambling is more common in men than women. Women who gamble typically start later in life and may become addicted more quickly. But gambling patterns among men and women have become increasingly similar.
- Family or friend influence. If your family members or friends have a gambling problem, the chances are greater that you will, too.
- Medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease and restless legs syndrome. Drugs called dopamine agonists have a rare side effect that may result in compulsive behaviors, including gambling, in some people.
- Certain personality characteristics. Being highly competitive, a workaholic, impulsive, restless or easily bored may increase your risk of compulsive gambling.
Symptoms of Gambling Addiction
Signs of gambling addiction can vary depending on the individual.
But if you continue to gamble even in the face of negative social, financial, or legal consequences — whether you’re buying lottery tickets, visiting casinos, playing slot machines, betting on sports, or gambling online – you have a problem.
According Healthline, common signs of gambling addiction include:
- Obsessing over any type of gambling
- Gambling to feel better about life
- Failing to control your gambling
- Avoiding work or other commitments to gamble
- Neglecting bills and expenses and using the money for gambling
- Selling possessions to gamble
- Stealing money to gamble
- Lying about your gambling habit
- Feeling guilty after a gambling session
- Taking bigger and bigger risks while gambling
The shame and guilt associated with gambling addiction usually drives people to conceal their problem. But eventually the symptoms of their addiction will manifest in ways they cannot hide. Mood disorders, irritability and irrational actions will drive wedges between them and their loved ones. It can also result in weight loss, weakness and a loss in appetite.
Some people with an addiction may not gamble frequently, but once they do start, they cannot stop.
If left untreated, a gambling addiction can cause a wake of destruction, leaving you with only fragments of a former life.
But like other addictions, this one can be managed, too.
Gambling addiction can be treated with methods that include therapy and medication.
Programs such as inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation will provide access to group sessions and one-on-one therapy. You’ll learn how to develop impulse control, establish a healthy relationship with money, and uncover any underlying behavioral or mental health conditions that might be contributing to your gambling compulsion.
Psychotherapy and cognitive therapy can identify deeper emotional or avoidance issues. Issues you’ll need to learn how to face and deal with, in order to change self-destructive patterns. Counseling will offer a safe space to discuss and address these problems.
Joining a 12-step program, which is modeled like Alcoholics Anonymous, can help build a support network of other recovered gambling addicts.
And in some cases, medication may also help overcome urges.
Lifestyle changes will need to be made. It’ll be imperative to quit gambling completely, as even the most infrequent bouts of gambling can cause relapses. Avoiding places and situations that trigger the urge to gamble, or relinquishing control of your finances to a trusted friend or loved one, might be difficult at first, but necessary.
The sooner you seek help, the sooner you can get your life back.