Are You A Compulsive Gambler? Signs You Might Be Struggling With Addiction

Medically reviewed by Dr. April Brewer, DBH, LPC
Updated June 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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For some people, occasional gambling, such as going to a casino, placing bets on sports games, or having a poker night, is a form of temporary entertainment. For others, these behaviors may lead to severe, compulsive or out-of-control gambling addiction. Gambling addiction is a common but serious mental illness affecting people of all backgrounds. If you think you or a loved one may be living with this condition, looking at its symptoms and how to receive support may be helpful. You’re not alone, and gambling addiction is treatable.

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Online therapy has helped many people with gambling compulsions

What is gambling addiction?

A behavioral dependency on gambling can be like substance misuse or drug addiction. The brain releases positive chemicals during gambling, which a person may become dependent on for their well-being, similar to those who experience substance use disorder. When people with a gambling addiction cannot receive a dopamine rush from gambling, it can create withdrawal symptoms. Compulsive gambling, which may be called gambling disorder in a clinical setting, is an intense difficulty to resist impulses to gamble that can result in social, legal, and financial problems.  

Because of its impacts on the brain, gambling disorder is considered an addictive disorder by the American Psychiatric Publishing Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). This condition was previously grouped with impulse control disorders and was believed to be in the same category as some types of obsessive and compulsive-related disorders. However, the American Psychiatric Association now classifies gambling disorder as a behavioral addiction.

Although once considered impulse-related, compulsive gambling is more similar to substance-related addictions, as it lights up the same reward pathways in the brain, which can cause cravings in compulsive gamblers.

Who can be diagnosed with gambling disorder? 

Gambling addiction can happen at any age, particularly for younger to middle-aged people. However, in men, a gambling addiction often starts during adolescence. For women, this dependency may begin between the ages of 20 to 40. Gambling addiction can run in families, but environmental factors, such as stress or a traumatic past, may also contribute to the onset. 

Signs you might be living with a compulsive gambling addiction 

A few specific criteria are often used to diagnose individuals with a gambling addiction. These indicators are based on the criteria used in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and at least four of these symptoms must be present within 12 months. 

According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, “problem gambling (also known as “pathological gambling,” “gambling disorder,” or “gambling addiction”) is a compulsive gambling behavior with effects that are damaging to an individual or their family. This behavior often disrupts their daily life, social connections, and career.

Below are signs therapists or doctors may look for in clients. 

Gambling with more money to achieve the same desired effect

Individuals with gambling problems may gradually spend more money to get the same effect they received when their gambling behaviors first began. This effect may be similar to building a tolerance for physical substances. For these individuals, when the stakes are higher, so are the reactions in the brain. High stakes may be more thrilling, leading to spending more money. 

Restlessness or irritability when trying to quit gambling

While some individuals may be in denial or unaware that they have a gambling addiction, others recognize that it is a problem but experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop. These symptoms can be powerful and challenging to overcome. In addition to restlessness and irritability, people with a gambling addiction might experience depression, anxiety, or distressing physical symptoms. 

Repeatedly 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 challenging. It may be common for people to make multiple attempts at controlling, reducing, or quitting their problem gambling behaviors, but many feel unable to resist their compulsions. The lack of success can be discouraging and cause individuals to believe they are stuck with their gambling problem, leading to more distress.

Frequent thoughts about gambling

It can be expected for people with a gambling addiction to have their minds on gambling for most of the day. They might try to reminisce about past experiences or think about their future gambling events and how they can achieve the financial means to continue their habit. 

Gambling to cope with stress 

While some people gamble to seek excitement, others may gamble to numb feelings and escape stress. It can be common for these individuals to use it as a coping mechanism for anxiety, depression, and helplessness. However, withdrawal caused by gambling disorder can also prompt these feelings. Gambling may provide temporary relief, which propels a seemingly endless cycle between problem gambling, negative feelings, and uncomfortable symptoms. Because of this process, some individuals with gambling addiction experience suicidal ideation.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text 988 to talk to a crisis provider over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support. 988 also offers an online chat for those with an internet connection.

Trying to “get even”

Setting a loss limit or experiencing a streak of gambling losses may not be enough for someone to quit gambling. When someone with a gambling dependency loses money, they may try to keep gambling to get their money back. This process is known as “chasing one’s losses.” However, it may worsen the situation rather than get even and cause further financial losses. 

Lying to conceal gambling activity

Individuals living with a gambling addiction may try to hide the extent of their gambling addiction from friends, family, and others. For example, they might lie about where they are, gamble using cash only, try to hide bank statements or try to take financial control of their family’s bank accounts. They may also say, “I can stop anytime,” “It’s not hurting anyone,” or “I don’t have a problem.”

Jeopardizing relationships and opportunities

Like other addictions, gambling habits can cause challenges in family relationships and managing a career. The preoccupation with gambling can cause people to lose their jobs, forfeit their education, and lose loved ones. In some cases, people with a gambling addiction may harm those they love by stealing money, forfeiting essential bills, or ruining a spouse’s credit.

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Relying on others to solve money problems

People with a gambling problem might ask friends, family, and associates to try to bail them out of difficult situations that their habit has put them in, such as struggling to get bills paid on time or trying to prevent bankruptcy. However, they may use borrowed money to gamble. In severe cases, people may steal or commit crimes to further their gambling habit. 

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Is gambling addiction treatable? 

Treating a gambling addiction can be challenging, but this condition is often treatable. Part of the treatment may be identifying your gambling habits. If others have told you they’re concerned about your behaviors, it may be a sign to reach out for support. However, it may be most effective if you can commit to the process yourself. 

Your friends and family may be involved during the treatment process. However, it may not be helpful if they are lecturing or shaming you for your addiction. In these cases, it might be best to take a personal approach until you are ready to talk to loved ones about your treatment. 

Note that treating gambling addiction may not treat all symptoms or concerns. It can be normal for people with this condition to go through periods of chronic gambling alongside remission, as relapse is possible. For this reason, professional treatment is a process that can take time. 

What programs are available? 

GA (Gamblers Anonymous) is a 12-step program that offers self-help support groups where you can talk to others experiencing this addiction and receive peer support. In addition to talking to peers with the same challenges via support groups, you can connect with those who have successfully beaten their gambling addiction.

Psychotherapy methods, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can also be helpful in changing an individual’s thoughts and feelings towards gambling. A therapist can offer practical coping skills and cognitive behavioral therapy methods to help reduce the urge to gamble. 

By identifying why the individual gambles, a therapist can help the client alter their thoughts through different means, better manage emotional responses to challenging events, and offer reinforcement for lifestyle changes, such as rewarding oneself for limiting exposure to gambling. 

Online therapy has helped many people with gambling compulsions

Alternative support options 

Problem gambling can impact anyone. If you’re experiencing this challenge, it may be challenging to ask for help, especially if you’re experiencing shame and embarrassment about reaching out for in-person therapy. In these cases, online therapy platforms like BetterHelp may be an option. 

With an online platform, you can connect with a therapist from home and address emotions you’re experiencing regarding your symptoms and urges. Users can schedule appointments at convenient times and preferred locations through online therapy. In addition, you can message your therapist throughout the week and receive a response when they’re available. Doing so may be one way to increase the gap between a compulsion to gamble and practicing strategies to investigate what environmental events may have manifested it.

Online counseling has been proven effective in treating various addictions, including gambling. A meta-analysis evaluating 27 articles focusing on interventions for problem gambling uncovered that CBT was the most commonly utilized form of internet-based therapy for gambling addiction and could effectively improve problem gambling scores and behaviors.

In addition to psychotherapy, a psychiatrist may suggest medication to help treat symptoms related to gambling. Aside from mood stabilizers or anti-depressants such as lithium or Prozac, there’s established evidence that opioid antagonists may be helpful in treating gambling addiction. By blocking the opioid receptors in the brain’s dopamine neurotransmitters, opioid antagonists can decrease the urge to gamble, as well as reduce the symptoms of withdrawal.

Takeaway

It may be challenging to come to terms with and accept that you have a gambling addiction, but you’re not alone, and support is available. With help, you may be able to reduce the urge to gamble, cope with challenging emotions, and foster healthy relationships in your life. Consider reaching out to a therapist online or in your area to get started.
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