Gambling Anonymous: Is It As Effective As AA?

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Laura Angers

Walking into a grocery store, you may immediately be greeted by a large machine, not unlike a vending machine offering tantalizing snacks, promising riches if you’ll only toss in a couple of dollars. A drive through the United States might reveal large signs, emblazoned with the word “casino,” also offering untold sums, if only you’ll stop by for a few minutes. A quick click around the internet and you might find a hint of an online poker game, or another game designed to test your odds, all with the promise of great reward. Whether you choose to put in a few dollars, turn off the highway, or click on a link, the addictive nature of gambling is very real, and the corresponding addiction can quickly take hold.

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What Constitutes a Gambling Addiction?

Gambling is everywhere. Whether you live close to a large city or you are seemingly sequestered in a tiny town on the fringes of nowhere, you likely have some means of gambling. Even without horse races, an internet connection, or a large, glittering building with rows and rows of slot machines, you can find access to gambling, perhaps through betting a paltry sum on a local sports game, or even just betting pennies on the flip of a quarter. What, then, indicates that gambling has taken a turn from a small nuisance to a serious problem?

A gambling problem and gambling addiction are not the same things, though a gambling problem could easily be the entryway to gambling addiction. The difference between problem behavior and an addictive behavior lies primarily in compulsion—is the behavior legitimately under control, indulged in intentionally, or has it become a matter of course, a matter of survival, or a matter of necessity? These basic questions can help determine the degree of addiction involved in gambling and can help identify how quickly the behavior is escalating.

The question of addiction, compulsion, and other potentially frightening words is often one of necessity: do you or a loved one feel as though you need to gamble? Could you stop gambling at any moment, or would you itch for more? These are the most common symptoms of gambling addiction (also called pathological gambling), but other symptoms include:

  • An unusual preoccupation with gambling. If you throw a few dollars onto the table at a weekly poker game and think little of it until the next game rolls around, you may engage in a healthier form of gambling. If, however, you throw down your wallet at a weekly poker game, and cannot think about winning more or winning it back the next week, this would constitute a reason for concern.
  • Escalating behavior. If the desire to gamble is coupled with a need to lay down larger and larger bets, addiction could be at play. Much in the same way an individual with substance abuse disorder must resort to taking in larger amounts of a substance to receive the same response, compulsive gamblers may need to increase the amount being gambled to feel the same sense of elation.
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  • An inability to stop. If you are unable to stop gambling, despite numerous attempts, this is a clear sign that something deeper than a harmless hobby is at play.
  • Living in a chaotic environment to support gambling. Shifting money around to make sure there is plenty to gamble while neglecting bills, a mortgage, food, and other necessities indicate the presence of addiction.
  • Evasive behavior. Lying, stealing, and hiding the signs of gambling are all indicators that gambling addiction is at play. Although lying, stealing, and hiding are not necessarily indications, themselves, of an addiction, in conjunction with a habit-forming substance or behavior, these behaviors suggest that something has gone awry.

Learning that compulsive gambling has entered your life or the life of a loved one can be frightening; any form of addiction carries potentially severe consequences. Fortunately, addiction is a very treatable disorder, and gambling addiction is among the disorders that respond well to treatment.

The Basis of Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous is not a treatment program, necessarily, but is instead designed as something of a cross between a support system, an accountability partnership, and a strategy to work through the root of the reason for addiction. Alcoholics Anonymous is a recovery program based on the notion that addiction has reached a place where life has become unmanageable. This is the basis for recovery in AA: the notion that something has to change. The exact reason for the need to change is immaterial. The impending loss of a marriage, the loss of money, increased mental illness, regardless of the exact mechanism behind life, has become unmanageable. AA is founded upon the idea that life has, in some way, become difficult to handle, and change is necessary to survive.

Family, friends, and fellow attendees are all a part of an individual’s treatment process and recovery because one of the core concepts of AA is the idea of community and accountability; living as though you exist in a vacuum continually contributes to worsening addictive behavior, as you may not recognize or respond to the gravity of your actions. Family and friends are often the ones who bring the notion of a gambling disorder to the fore and can provide a great deal of encouragement and support along the road to recovery.

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Transferring AA Basics to Gamblers Anonymous

Although Alcoholics Anonymous focuses on a physical substance that can be imbibed, the principles of the program remain the same and can transfer to Gamblers Anonymous. Although it may be argued that alcohol and narcotics are habit-forming substances, and therefore exist in a class outside of gambling, gambling has a very real physical effect on the human brain, and “lights up” the brain’s pleasure and rewards centers much in the same way as those same habit-forming substances—and others, such as sugar and hyper-palatable foods. Knowing this, it may come as far less of a surprise that gambling can go from a small habit or hobby to a full-blown addiction.

Just as Alcoholics Anonymous focuses on abstinence from the substance, working through the 12 steps, and making right any wrongs that occurred during an individual’s addiction, Gamblers Anonymous focuses on abstinence from the behavior, working through the 12 steps, and making right any wrongs. As is the case for all 12-step programs, Gamblers Anonymous encourages the use of a sponsor, who functions as something of an accountability partner and mentor, and encourages regular attendance to GA meetings. All of these components combine to make up the bulk and efficacy of anonymous programs.

Although the first “anonymous” program was initially developed as a response to alcoholism, the tenets of the program are readily transferred to other forms of addiction and have even been adapted to suit the codependent behavior so often seen in the loved ones of individuals with addiction. Despite AA’s beginnings as a narrowly focused recovery program, it has been adapted to suit countless addictions and problematic behavior and is frequently lauded as a useful, important part of working through and overcoming addiction.

Gambling and Mental Health

Like many other mental health conditions, gambling addiction—or pathological gambling, or other phrases used to denote the presence of a compulsive need to gamble—is often accompanied by other mental health conditions, whether they are diagnosed disorders, undiagnosed disorders, or unhealthy coping habits. This is because addictive disorders rarely function in a vacuum; addictive disorders typically demonstrate unhealthy coping habits, which are often fueled by other areas of need, such as depression, anxiety, or trauma.

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Is Gamblers Anonymous As Effective as AA?

When used appropriately, Gamblers Anonymous can be an effective tool on the step toward recovery. The key, here, is using it appropriately; it is not designed to take the place of legitimate mental health professionals, such as those working through BetterHelp, but is instead intended to be used as a source of support and personal work, both of which have been proven to be helpful for individuals struggling with addiction. When asking if Gamblers Anonymous is effective, the answer is simple: it yields what you put into it. Simply attending meetings, remaining distant, and refusing to engage with the literature will not yield a significant source of help or hope when working through addiction, but reading through the materials, attending meetings, building community, and working with a sponsor can all help improve the chances of recovering from addiction.

Although the “anonymous” programs were initially developed for Alcoholism, the principles contained within them remain the same: addiction has made life unmanageable, and the only effective way to get to the other side of addiction is to look at the reasons the addiction developed, to begin with. This often requires frightening honesty, boldness in correcting mistakes, and taking personal responsibility—all of which can be painful to experience. That being said, “anonymous” programs consistently demonstrate greater outcomes in addiction, with more people who attend AA or similar meetings continuing a program of abstinence after a period of 1-2 years. For this reason, many individuals who work with gambling recovery or who have recovered, themselves, encourage those struggling with addiction to seek out a local Gamblers Anonymous as part of a robust, comprehensive treatment plan.


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