Are You A Compulsive Gambler? Here Are The Signs
Updated August 28, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Laura Angers
For many individuals, going to the casinos, placing bets on sports games, or having a poker night is just an occasional form of entertainment; however, when it gets out of hand, it can turn into an uncontrollable urge and become compulsive gambling. Gambling addiction is a common, but very serious issue that can affect people of all backgrounds, and this article will share some of the signs that you or someone you care about might have a gambling problem.
Compulsive gambling, also known as problem gambling or gambling addiction, is an inability to resist the urge to gamble that can result in various issues such as finances, relationships, and even legal troubles. 
The uncontrollable nature of problem gambling is very similar to what happens when someone is addicted to drugs and alcohol. There are reactions in the brain that happen while a person is gambling as well as when they are away from it. When people who have a gambling addiction are unable to get the dopamine rush from gambling, it can create withdrawal symptoms. 
Because of this, compulsive gambling is now considered an addictive disorder by the American Psychiatric Association and in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual 5th edition (DSM-5), whereas before it was grouped with impulse control disorders and was believed to be similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Gambling addiction does involve a lack of control over impulses; however, the reasons for doing so are different than those in the Impulse Control Disorders and Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders classes of mental conditions in the DSM.
For one, compulsive gambling is more similar to substance addictions in that they both trigger the same reward pathways, and it causes cravings.  On the other hand, with the other conditions, like OCD, the actions and behaviors are in response to negative feelings and emotions like fear and anxiety.
Nonetheless, there can be some similarities between mental health conditions like OCD and problem gambling, namely regarding compulsive behaviors, but overall, they are different conditions. 
Gambling addiction can happen at any age, particularly in adulthood; however, in men, a gambling problem can begin during their adolescence, and for women, it often starts between the ages of 20 to 40.  It can also run in families, but there can be environmental factors as well that contribute to the onset of problem gambling, like stress. 
Unfortunately, many people with compulsive gambling habits are in denial, despite seeing various problems happen around them, and as you continue to read on, you’ll learn more about the signs and symptoms of problem gambling so that you or a loved one can start getting help.
Diagnosing A Gambling Addiction: Signs & Symptoms
Even if you or you know someone who gambles frequently, there are still specific criteria used to diagnose people with a gambling addiction. These indicators are based on the listing used in the DSM-5, and at least four of these symptoms must be present within a 12-month period:
- Gambling with More Money to Achieve the Same Desired Effect
Many people with problem gambling habits find that they will gradually spend more money to get the same effect that they received when they first started gambling. This is similar to building a tolerance for drugs and alcohol. For these individuals, when the stakes are higher, so are the reactions in the brain, and it becomes more thrilling for them, leading to a gambling problem.
- Restless or Irritable When Trying to Cut Down or Stop Gambling
While there are people who are in denial and unaware they have a gambling problem, there are others who do recognize that there is a problem, but they run into withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop. These withdrawal symptoms can be powerful, just like in substance addictions, and in addition to feeling restless and irritable, people with a gambling addiction might become depressed and anxious and even experience physical symptoms related to these conditions. 
- Repeated Unsuccessful Efforts to Manage or Stop Gambling
The positive mental effects, such as thrill and excitement, along with withdrawal, can make the management of gambling habits very challenging. Therefore, it is common for people to make multiple attempts at controlling, reducing, or quitting their problem gambling behaviors. The lack of success can be discouraging and make people feel like they are stuck with their gambling problem, leading to more distress.
- Frequent Thoughts about Gambling
It’s typical for people with gambling addiction to have their minds on it even while not doing it. They might try to reminisce about past experiences or think about their future gambling events and how they can get the money for it. 
- Gambling When Feeling Distressed
While there are people who seek excitement, there are also people who gamble to numb their feelings and use it as a way to escape from other problems.  Therefore, it’s also common for addicts to try to use gambling as a way to relieve stress, anxiety, depression, and helplessness. However, as mentioned before, withdrawal caused by gambling disorder can create these feelings as well, and the act of gambling will provide relief, and this can cause an endless cycle between problem gambling and negative feelings and emotions. Because of this, many individuals with gambling addiction experience suicidal ideation.
- Trying to “Get Even”
Even setting a loss-limit or being on a losing streak isn’t enough to get someone to call it quits, and when someone with a gambling problem loses money, there can be a tendency to try to keep gambling to get their money back. This is known as “chasing one’s losses,” and rather than getting even, it can make matters even worse and cause them to lose more money while problem gambling.
- Lying To Conceal Gambling Activity
People with problem gambling habits may try to hide the extent of their gambling addiction from friends, family, and others. Some examples of this can be lying about their whereabouts, paying with cash only, trying to hide bank statements, or trying to take total control of the family finances. They may also say common phrases like “I can stop anytime ” “it’s not hurting anyone,” or “I don’t have a problem.”
- Jeopardizing Relationships and Opportunities
Like other addictions, gambling addiction can be tragic and destroy lives. The preoccupation with gambling can cause people to lose their jobs, forfeit their education due to a lack of funds or failing grades, and it can also affect those around them, especially immediate family members who depend on the gambler for their well-being.
- Relying On Others To Help Solve Money Problems
People with a gambling problem might try to ask friends, family, and associates to try to bail them out of difficult situations that their habit has put them in, such as struggling getting bills paid on time or trying to prevent bankruptcy. Unfortunately, in many cases, borrowed money can just be gambled away again. Some other behaviors that addicts might exhibit that can belong in this category are stealing from people and committing other crimes to get money to further their gambling addiction.
Getting Help For A Gambling Addiction
Treating a gambling addiction can be challenging, as is the case with other addictions, but it is possible to overcome it with the right support.
It starts by identifying and understanding that there is an issue with your gambling habits, and there is a good chance that those around you have already pointed out that you have a gambling problem.
In fact, your friends and family can be involved during the treatment process, but it’s crucial that they should never try to lecture someone with a gambling problem about their behaviors, nor should they try to exclude them from activities, and importantly, they shouldn’t expect quick or immediate results from the treatment of problem gambling. 
Also, it shouldn’t be expected that all problems will stop once the gambling problem has ceased. It’s normal for gambling addicts to go through periods of chronic gambling as well as remission where they don’t gamble at all. It’s also possible to relapse, and therefore, like other addictions, gambling addiction treatment is a process, and management can be a lifelong endeavor.
While the effects on others can certainly be influential, and their worries and concerns should be considered, it’s ultimately up to the individual to make the change to try to better themselves, and there are different strategies to do this such as 12-step programs such as Gamblers Anonymous, therapy, counseling, support groups such as and self-help to stop problem gambling.
12-step programs like Gamblers Anonymous are very similar to drug and alcohol programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, where you can get support from others who are in the same position as you, and you can discuss your experiences with the problem gambling together. In addition to talking to peers with the same issue as you, you will also be able to connect with those who have been successful in beating their gambling addiction.
Psychotherapy methods, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, can be very useful in changing an individual’s thoughts and feelings towards gambling, and it can provide them effective coping skills so that they reduce their need for problem gambling to achieve the desired feeling.
By identifying the reasons why the individual gambles, they can work to alter that through different means, and this can mean managing their triggers for problem gambling and by offering reinforcement for lifestyle changes, such as rewarding themselves for not gambling. 
Regular counseling sessions can also be helpful, and friends and family can also participate and share their feelings about how the gambling problem has affected their lives. Problem gambling can cause stress for everyone, and it can be effective to get everyone involved to make a meaningful change.
Counseling and therapy for gambling addiction are very accessible, and with BetterHelp’s online services, you can connect to a licensed professional who can help you change your behaviors and address any feelings and emotions you may be experiencing regarding the gambling problem. It’s affordable and convenient, and everyone who is dealing with compulsive gambling in one way or another can get the help that they need to live happier lives.
Hopefully, this article has helped you learn more about compulsive gambling and helped you identify if you or a loved one is dealing with a gambling problem. It can be hard to come to terms with and accept that you have a gambling addiction, but you’re not alone, and support is available in many ways. With help, you can not only turn your own life around, but you also improve the well-being of those around you.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2020). Compulsive gambling: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001520.htm
- Benson, R. (2018, August 6). Signs and Symptoms of Gambling Withdrawal. Retrieved from https://www.algamus.org/blog/signs-and-symptoms-of-gambling-withdrawal
- American Psychiatric Association. (2017). What is Gambling Disorder? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/gambling-disorder/what-is-gambling-disorder
- Okuda, M., Balán, I., Petry, N. M., Oquendo, M., & Blanco, C. (2009). Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Pathological Gambling: Cultural Considerations. American Journal of Psychiatry, 166(12), 1325–1330. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2009.08081235