When your gambling gets out of control, it can be extremely destructive and devastating to you and to those with whom you associate. Because a gambling addiction develops over time, you, your friends, and family members may not notice that your behavior is compulsive or getting out of hand. However, just because you gamble and enjoy gambling a lot does not mean you are addicted to it.
There are ways to determine whether certain behaviors and activities related to your gambling suggest that you are enjoying a recreational activity or if your gambling has become a compulsive habit with potentially serious consequences. As an addiction psychologist and certified addiction counselor in Pennsylvania, which recently bested New Jersey in combined gambling revenue for 2012 and 2013, many people come to me to find help sorting through the interrelated mental health issues that may fuel gambling behavior in order to determine whether they have a mild gambling problem, a major compulsive and pathological issue, or just an expensive hobby that is all in good fun.
It’s rare, but possible, to develop a gambling addiction after your very first gambling experience. When problems develop, they usually progress over time. Many people participate in social gambling for years with no problems. More frequent gambling or life stressors can contribute to social gambling becoming a serious problem. Most casual gamblers can stop gambling when they have to because of losses; they can set a loss limit and easily follow it. People with a compulsive gambling problem feel strong urges to keep gambling to recoup their lost money. When gamblers are betting to chase losses, things can tailspin out of control, gamblers can lose touch with reality, and the issue can manifest in severe and exacting consequences. Over time, this issue can become more and more destructive.
For many compulsive gamblers, gambling is about the thrill, not the money. Some begin to take bigger risks and place larger bets to keep getting more of a thrill; this can take a financial toll. When a gambler is trying to recoup losses, lives can be destroyed. Many folks with whom I work recount that their bottom was when this shift happened and they realized that they were gambling in the hope they could get back their losses.
A gambling addiction, unlike drug or alcohol addictions, often has no obvious physical signs or symptoms. Many people with problematic gambling habits deny that they have a problem. They minimize the problem or refuse to admit that their gambling is out of control. They often gamble in secrecy, not allowing friends and family to know about their behavior. They may lie, keep secrets, sneak around, or completely withdraw socially. They do this to make it difficult for anyone to interfere with or confront them about their detrimental behavior.
An important part of recovery from a gambling issue is to expose the gambler’s secrets—extra credit cards, hidden cash, unaccounted-for time, lies about income, etc.—over time to the right, supportive people at the right times. A therapist is a great start, and meeting other people who are recovering from gambling addiction can help a person to feel understood, supported, and guided into long-term recovery.
Just as substance abuse is characterized by uncontrollable urges to consume a particular substance, causing negative consequences to the addicted person and those around the person, a gambling addiction is characterized broadly by tendencies to gamble in ways that cause damage to the person who is gambling and those associated with that person. The urge to gamble can be especially overwhelming during episodes of stress or depression. A person may use gambling as an unhealthy way to cope. As the problem develops and becomes stronger, a gambler may become overly focused on gambling (gambling-seeking) and getting money to gamble.
What Are the Risk Factors?
Certain factors may put you at greater risk for becoming addicted to gambling or having a harder time stopping. These include substance abuse (alcohol abuse is common), mood (often depression) or personality issues or attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD); age (younger and middle-aged); sex (women gamblers usually start later in life and tend to have depression, anxiety, or bipolar and can become addicted quicker, although these differences are disappearing); family influence (having a parent with a gambling issue increases your chances); certain medications such as those which treat Parkinson’s and restless leg syndrome (RLS), called dopamine agonists, may have a rare side effect that results in compulsive behaviors, including gambling; and certain personality characteristics such as being highly competitive, a workaholic, restless, or easily bored.
The National Council on Problem Gambling, referring to a Harvard study, estimates that two million (or 1% of) U.S. adults meet the criteria for compulsive gambling in a given year. Another four million to six million do not meet the full diagnostic criteria for compulsive gambling, but meet at least one of them and are experiencing problems due to their gambling behavior. According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a diagnosis of gambling disorder is made when someone meets at least four of the following nine criteria in a 12-month period:
- Tolerance: Needing larger wagers to experience the same “rush” (similar to the “rush” felt by drug users).
- Withdrawal: Restlessness or irritability when attempting to reduce or cease gambling.
- Loss of control: Repeated unsuccessful attempts to cut down or stop on his/her own.
- Preoccupation: Frequent thoughts about gambling experiences, whether past, future, or fantasy.
- Escape: Gambling to improve mood or escape problems.
- Chasing: Trying to win back gambling losses with more gambling.
- Lying: Hiding the extent of the behavior by lying to friends, family, or a therapist.
- Risked a significant relationship: Gambling despite damaging or losing an important relationship, job, or other significant opportunity.
- Bailout: Turning to friends, family, or a third party for financial assistance resulting from gambling activities.
Do You Have a Gambling Problem?
As with drug and alcohol abuse, it is often an indication that you have a problem if you are wondering whether you have a problem. If you are losing time from your everyday activities because you are gambling or thinking about gambling; spend more time gambling than you intended to; are gambling to escape worries or stave off boredom or loneliness; or spent money you needed to pay your bills or other expenses, you likely do have a gambling problem.
Are your friends and family expressing concern? They might be recognizing the ways in which your gambling is affecting you before you are. The sooner you seek help and treatment, the less damage to your finances, relationships, and work you will have to repair.
Would you like to stop? The first step to getting well is to accept that you have a progressive issue. It is so much easier to change when we want to, at least a little bit, and so much harder to change when we have to.
Quitting for a while or taking a break is a good indication that you have control over your gambling. It’s possible for some compulsive gamblers to go into remission where they gamble less or not at all. Without professional treatment, though, they will usually relapse.
Like other addictions, a gambling issue may wax and wane or come and go, just as different drugs become more in vogue depending on the zeitgeist. Many people who see me for addiction like to think of their compulsive behavior as the whack-a-mole game people play at carnivals. You can whack the mole, but it’s connected to something else and it will pop up again. It might pop up as a different gambling game, drug use, alcohol use, or shopping or food addiction. Whether it pops up in Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, or in a casino near you, gambling is here to stay, and so, too, is addiction. We must learn to live with these tendencies and become curious about how they work and what purpose they serve for us as individuals, our cultures, and society. With increased awareness and understanding, we can learn how to help ourselves and those we love and care about.
For help with an addiction issue, find a therapist.
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