It is estimated that compulsive gambling affects 2% to 4% of Americans and disproportionately more men than women. Although men tend to develop gambling addictions at a younger age, women now make up more than one-quarter of all compulsive gamblers, and their symptoms tend to worsen faster once compulsive gambling develops.
Due to the advent of internet gambling and as states are increasingly legalizing gaming, betting, and slots, the field has changed, and adolescent gamblers are fast becoming a new generation of compulsive gamblers. In young people, gambling problems develop much like they do in adults: There is increased time spent gambling, higher risk taking, greater costs and consequences, denial, and withdrawal. In adolescent gamblers and in adults, the reasons people gamble are the same and can range from habit and routine to loneliness, shame, anxiety, and depression.
One Teenager’s Story of Compulsive Gambling
Over the past few years I have felt ashamed of who I was, ashamed of my religion, ashamed of the fact that I wasn’t close with my “friends,” and ashamed of the fact that my true friends didn’t know the real me. As time pressed on, these factors built up inside of me so strongly that I felt like I was going to explode. I didn’t know what to do, so I went into hiding from it all. I hid behind the sports I played, I hid behind my work at both school and my job, I hid from God, but most of all I hid from others. After some time, it all became too much and I went into seclusion, I removed myself from everyone and everything I once knew. As time passed on, I looked for something to do with the pent up energy I had that wasn’t being used up anywhere else. I had so much of it, but no outlet. I was lost, scared, alone, depressed, and broken.
I found my outlet in gambling. I could use my wit, my competitive nature, a ton of energy, and feel the highs of the win, which would temporarily remedy my broken soul. It seemed like the perfect thing; I could solve my problems all at once, including my finances! But then I realized all of the sudden I couldn’t stop playing and I didn’t know why. It snuck up on me. I gambled when I said I wouldn’t. I woke up in the middle of the night and gambled. I thought about gambling in school, at home, and when I was with my friends. I couldn’t stop because gambling became my everything, I had nothing else. In my mind I had nothing to go back to that was meaningful and purposeful, no reason to stop playing and return to some semblance of normalcy. I felt like I had no loved ones, no friends, no identity, no life. I was completely bound by shame, and because of this I went into further seclusion and hiding.
After working on myself, going to counseling and facing my thoughts and feelings in an honest way, something began to happen. I don’t know exactly what it was or what to call it, but I got a glimpse of life again and I started to feel like I could love my life again. I finally connected with people and slowly broke the shame by facing it with the help of a therapist, my family, and friends. My shame drove my compulsion and consumed me to the core. I have finally begun to feel free, a true freedom that I haven’t felt in years. I realize that people genuinely care for me and want me in their lives. I can finally share with people my story and tell them that that I used to feel like a f***-up. I put myself into a dark hole and was burying myself alive. But a glimpse of light shone through and it reminded me that there is good in life and to keep hope. As long as I am breathing, I can fix pain and errant ways.
So I am ready to move on, move forward, put the darkness behind me and never look back. With a renewed sense of spirituality and with the people who I thought I had lost at my side and with some professional help, I can live again, prosper, and be happy. Happiness is a simple warmth and goodness that has eluded me for a long time. By finally sharing the truth of my story, I am breaking the shackles that have bound me. I now believe I can continue to conquer the darkness that had a grip on my life for so long. I am finally free.
What Causes Compulsive Gambling
As with drug and alcohol addictions, there is no universal “root” cause of compulsive gambling. People develop unhealthy relationships with drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, food, etc., for a variety of different reasons. Usually, negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, guilt, shame, depression, loneliness, inferiority, and fear are contributing factors to the development of addictive disorders.
A fight with a spouse or a hard day at work can make an evening at the casino or playing online poker seem fun and a great way to unwind. But there are far more healthy (and less expensive) ways to unwind, and an important aspect to treatment for problem gamblers is to explore alternative ways of handling stress and anxiety. These can include exercising, meditating, breathing exercises, etc.
Problem Gambling Contrasted with Pathological ‘Compulsive’ Gambling
Gambling addiction is a “hidden illness,” as are other “process addictions,” which often involve no actual physical signs or symptoms more easily detected in alcohol- or drug-abusing individuals. Other process addictions may include food addiction, sex addiction, workaholism, and the various eating disorders. Problem gamblers usually downplay their problem or outright deny their inability to control their gambling behavior. They get very good at hiding their behavior from people who care about them. They lie, sneak, steal, and cheat and most often withdraw to cover their tracks.
“Problem gambling” generally is characterized by gambling resulting in harm to the individual or others in their lives. Individuals often experience consequences in the areas of finances, increased time in gambling activities, avoidance of work, school, occupation, family, and hobbies, preoccupation with gambling, etc… If problematic gambling occurs in the absence of other diagnoses from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) such as depression or anxiety, then a diagnosis of pathological gambling can be made according to the above assessment by a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist. In other words, people don’t always gamble because they are depressed or anxious; they can have a primary gambling problem in addition to anxiety or depression, according to the DSM-IV.
Treatment Options for Compulsive Gambling
The good news is that there is a high rate of recovery for gamblers and a wide range of treatment options available. Treatment could include support groups like Gamblers Anonymous, psychotherapy with an addiction psychologist, medications if appropriate (carbamazepine, topiramate, lithium, naltrexone, antidepressants, clomipramine, fluvoxamine), financial/debt counseling, and self-help interventions. Thus far, psychotherapy has been shown to be the most effective in the treatment of gambling addiction. To learn more about gambling, you can visit my website, www.jeremyfrankphd.com/topics/gambling/.
- American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fourth edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
- National Council on Problem Gambling. (2012). What is problem gambling? Retrieved Online March 27, 2012, from: http://www.ncpgambling.org.
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