What To Do When Your Gambling Addiction Takes Over Your Life

By Robert Porter|Updated April 5, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Dutil , LMHC, LPC

Gambling addiction, more accurately known as gambling disorder, is affecting more people than ever before. It is estimated that around 1.6 billion people gamble during a given year. In the United States alone, it is said that gambling disorder impacts about 1% of the total adult population.

For people who have a gambling addiction, a seemingly unquenchable thirst for gambling that’s only temporarily slaked by higher and more frequent bets takes over their life. Suppose you find yourself dealing with the financial woes, relationship troubles, and work problems that often accompany gambling addiction or gambling disorder. In that case, the most important thing you need to know is that there is hope.

Learning about gambling disorders is, for many, the first step to finding help. The truth is that no mental health condition – including gambling disorder – is the fault of the individual who lives with the condition. Anyone can develop a mental health condition at any time, and a gambling disorder, like substance use disorders, is a legitimate, complex mental health condition. If a gambling disorder is impacting you or someone else you know, this is important to remember.

It’s time to take the shame away from mental health conditions like gambling disorder. If you’re living with this disorder or think that you might be, you’re not on your own. So, what steps can you take to get to a better place and find a new normal after a dependency on gambling?

Step One: Understand that Excessive Gambling Really Is an Addiction

Is Your Gambling Addiction Taking Over Your Life?

For a long time, gambling was considered a compulsive behavior rather than an addiction. While many people still refer to it as ‘compulsive gambling,’ scientists have now begun to understand that an excessive gambling habit is similar to drug addiction. Why? The biological process that occurs in the brain generates excitement and a sense of accomplishment.

At one time, experts thought addiction was a dependence on a substance. Now, scientists have redefined addiction as being locked in the pursuit of a rewarding experience even when the repercussions threaten your physical and mental well-being. Those who previously studied problem gambling assumed that gambling wasn’t a real addiction because you weren’t ingesting any chemicals. However, scientists now understand that gambling changes the brain just as drug addiction does. In fact, this new conclusion is so accepted by the scientific community that the DSM-5, the primary diagnostic manual used to identify addictions and other mental health disorders, categorizes problem gambling as an addiction right alongside drug addictions.

What Happens in Your Brain When You Gamble

A part of your brain, deep in the center of your cranium, contains a series of circuits that scientists call ‘the reward system.’ The reward system releases dopamine whenever we do something to pass on our genes or to stay alive. When we engage in addictive behaviors, the reward system releases ten times as much dopamine as normally.

What Happens to Your Brain When You Become Addicted to Gambling

We feel euphoric when we light up that reward system at first, but after this system is activated over and over, our brain adapts to the excess dopamine. Now, it takes more to feel that intense pleasure. So, what should you do? Those genetically predisposed to addiction typically keep reaching that high by betting more or making riskier bets. The over-activation of the reward system weakens the connection between it and the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Because this part of our brain helps us control impulsive behavior, it becomes harder and harder to control the urge to gamble.

Step Two: Know If You’re at Risk for Gambling Addiction

Anyone can develop a gambling disorder or live with a gambling addiction. However, certain factors can put you at a higher risk of developing a gambling disorder, and in some cases, identifying these factors can be useful. Here are some things that can influence your likelihood of developing a gambling disorder:

  • It’s said that young people and young adults are more likely to struggle with gambling disorder.
  • While gambling disorder can impact all genders, those recorded as male in studies have a higher likelihood of developing a gambling disorder.
  • Genetic predisposition and exposure. For example, you may have a family member or friends with a gambling disorder.
  • Physical health concerns or conditions.
  • Other mental health conditions. If you live with another condition that impacts your mental health, it’s more likely that you’ll develop a gambling disorder. Common co-occurring conditions may include but aren’t limited to:
    • Substance use disorders
    • Anxiety disorders
    • Personality disorders
    • Bipolar disorder
    • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
    • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Temperament and personality may also play a role. You may also have an increased risk of developing gambling disorder if:

  • You’re highly competitive.
  • You overwork or identify as a workaholic.
  • You struggle with impulsivity.
  • You often feel restless or are easily bored.

Step Three: Recognize the Signs You Have a Gambling Addiction

If you’re concerned about your gambling habits, it can be eye-opening to look at the ways it’s impacting your life. Here are some of the negative effects that might present themselves if you live with a gambling disorder or gamble frequently:

  • You have trouble keeping a job, get fired, or quit jobs to gamble.
  • You have to file bankruptcy due to gambling.
  • You get into legal trouble as a result of gambling.
  • You’re forced to sell your home as a result of gambling.
  • You start to rely* on drugs and alcohol.
  • Your mental and physical health declines.
  • Your romantic relationships, familial relationships, work relationships, or friendships start to feel strained. This could be due to arguments, isolation from others, or something else.
  • You lie about how much you gamble so that others will not catch on.
  • You feel abandoned by the ones you love.
  • It’s hard to focus on anything outside of gambling.
  • You feel a sense of withdrawal when you try to stop gambling.

*Substance use disorders are serious, and help is available. If you or someone you know struggles with substance use or a substance use disorder, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 or visit the SAMHSA website for more information.

Symptoms of Problem Gambling

The effects of gambling addiction can be devastating, but how does it all start? What are the signs that gambling has taken over your world? The following symptoms can help you break through denial and understand that you really might have a gambling addiction.

  • You can’t stop thinking about gambling and how you’re going to get money for gambling.
  • You bet more than you used to to get the same high.
  • You try to stop gambling but can’t do it on your own.
  • You feel restless and irritable when you aren’t gambling.
  • You gamble to escape problems.
  • You gamble to overcome feelings of helplessness, guilt, depression, or anxiety.
  • You chase losses by betting more in an attempt to get back what you’ve lost.
  • You lie about or hide your gambling from others, especially loved ones.
  • You put your relationships or work at risk because of gambling.
  • You commit fraud or theft to get gambling money.
  • You rely on other people to care for your basic needs when you’ve gambled away the money you needed to take care of them yourself.
  • If applicable, you’re unable to provide for your family due to gambling.

Step Four: Deal with the Current Gambling Addiction Crisis

From time to time, you will encounter triggers. It’s important to have coping skills to go to at that moment regardless of where you’re at in your recovery journey. You can do a few things to deal with a situation where you need support for an immediate trigger. First, know that it’s okay to walk away. If you’re in a casino or gambling at someone’s home, leave immediately. Don’t wait to recover your losses or stay to find out who won. Instead, start walking away from the scene and keep going until you’re in a neutral place. Sometimes, support from another person can be advantageous if you’re in this situation. If you need someone to talk to, you may consider calling a gambling addiction hotline. The National Problem Gambling Helpline can be reached at 1-800-522-4700. Like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the National Problem Gambling Helpline is available 24/7 and is fully confidential.

What Happens When You Call a Gambling Addiction Hotline?

When you call a gambling addiction hotline, you’ll be connected to a live person trained to help people concerned about their gambling. The individuals at a gambling addiction hotline can talk to you and help you understand the steps needed to find gambling addiction treatment, though no one will force you into treatment. Although calling a hotline may not resolve everything you’re going through, it can be a fundamental step towards your recovery. Those who answer calls at gambling addiction hotlines understand that concerns related to gambling and gambling disorder are complex, and they’re there to meet you where you’re at. They may also be able to help you connect with a therapist or gambling addiction program in your area.

Step Five: Get into Gambling Addiction Treatment

Gambling addiction treatment gives you the tools to overcome your problem gambling. Techniques similar to treatment for drug addiction have proven the most effective. They include cognitive behavioral therapy and other forms of treatment. Gambling addiction treatment can be done on an outpatient basis. However, if your gambling addiction has taken over your life and put you or others in danger, inpatient treatment may be necessary.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and other similar forms of therapy have proven effective in various studies to treat gambling disorders. CBT is a common, non-invasive form of therapy used for many different mental health disorders or conditions. Often, when we struggle with a disorder such as gambling disorder, there are other concerns underneath. For example, there may be a co-occurring mental health condition, life stress, fear, or something else. Gambling disorder doesn’t mean that you’re broken, and often, there’s more going on under the surface than we think. Talk therapy can be incredibly helpful in breaking through these concerns and identifying cognitive distortions that impact the disorder or feed into the continuation of maladaptive patterns.

For example, you might assume that you’re about to win because you’ve lost so many times. Surely the tide will turn in your favor, right? Yet, even the casinos are now letting gamblers know that a string of losses has no bearing on whether you’re about to win or not. Another commonly mistaken belief is that if you almost win, you’re about to win. For example, the symbols on a slot machine nearly line up several times in a row. Now, you’re convinced that the next time you press the button, they will line up correctly, and you’ll win the jackpot. However, once you look at these beliefs objectively and see the fallacies behind them, it’s easier to get away from the slot machine or the gaming table.

Although you may know these things logically, therapy can help you grasp them in a way that allows you to apply them to your life. In cognitive-behavioral therapy, your therapist or counselor will help you learn a number of tools, such as thought reframe or cognitive reframing, that will help you reframe thoughts when you are experiencing triggers related to gambling. Thought to reframe can help you engage with a rational mind and can both support you when a trigger arises and support you in relapse prevention long-term.

Step Six: Connect with a 12-Step Program

Is Your Gambling Addiction Taking Over Your Life?

Different kinds of support work best for different people. Sometimes, therapy or possibly combined medication and therapy alone is the right fit for an individual living with a gambling disorder. However, support groups and 12-step programs may also be advantageous for some.

12-step program can help you during those times when you need social support from others who have a gambling addiction. The program enables you to gain a healthier perspective on your gambling and your life. Support groups and 12-step programs also give you a chance to be with others who understand what you’re going through, which can be deeply cathartic, especially if you feel misunderstood or alone in what you’re going through. Like therapy, a 12-step program can aid you in establishing concrete goals to work toward on your path to recovery.

Support groups and 12-step programs for gambling disorders can be found both online and in person.  With the coronavirus pandemic in mind, virtual support options are more prevalent than ever before. These can be particularly beneficial for those in remote areas.

It’s Never Too Soon or Too Late to Get Help for Your Gambling Addiction

Do you feel like you’ve waited too long to seek out professional help and can’t pick up the pieces when it comes to how gambling has impacted your life? Alternatively, do you worry that your concerns related to gambling aren’t serious enough for you to reach out for support?  In either case,  it’s never too late or too soon to get support.

If you feel that you might be on the path to developing a gambling addiction or gambling disorder, you don’t need to wait for things to get worse.  If you feel that it’s too late, talking to a counselor won’t make things worse. In fact, you’ll soon realize that as long as you’re alive, confronting gambling or gambling disorder is worth the effort. No matter how must it have cost you or impacted your world up until this point, your future can be different, and recovery is possible.

Find Support

Asking for help is something to be proud of. No matter where you’re at seeking support for a gambling disorder, having someone to talk to can help. There are a number of different ways to find support in the form of a counselor or a therapist. You can search the web, ask your doctor for a referral, contact your insurance company to see who they cover, find someone through your employee assistance program, or sign up for a reputable online therapy platform with licensed providers like BetterHelp.  Counseling is a confidential, safe space to talk about what’s on your mind, and your privacy is protected when you use the BetterHelp platform. Online counseling is often more affordable than traditional in-person therapy or counseling services without insurance, so don’t hesitate to take the first step and sign up today.

Please look at the counselor reviews below to see how they have assisted others in finding freedom.

Counselor Reviews

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In Conclusion

Having a gambling addiction can feel overwhelming, but you will be able to move forward. You don’t have to face concerns like this alone, and you will always have allies available to you. Reaching out today could be the fresh start that leads to the rest of your life. Take the first step and remember that healing is possible.

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