Although we tend to think of substance abuse first when we hear the word addiction, the truth is, an addiction to gambling can be just as devastating to people’s lives as drugs or alcohol. In fact, gambling addiction is quite similar to drug addiction, and should be taken just as seriously.
When you examine gambling statistics from the United States, what you discover is alarming.
- 2.2% of adults are addicted to gambling
- 2.1% of adolescents are addicted to gambling, and 6.5% are considered at-risk for developing a gambling problem
- Adolescents with gambling problems are two times as likely to use illegal drugs and binge drink, and three times as likely to get into trouble with fights, gangs, and the police.
- In 2013, the social cost of gambling addiction, including bankruptcy, job loss and criminal justice cost, was estimated at $7 billion.
Approximately 23 million Americans are in debt from gambling. Female gambling addicts accumulate an average $15,000 worth of debt, while male addicts accumulate between $55,000 and $90,000. In the face of such insurmountable debts, compulsive gamblers develop health problems and substance abuse issues, damage their relationships and lose jobs, and even start committing crimes to try and solve their financial problems.
Meanwhile, addicts will continue gambling and amassing more debt in hopes of a big win they believe will solve all their problems.
Why Gambling is Addicting
If you don’t have a gambling addiction, you likely don’t understand why everyone can’t just decide how much money they’re willing spend playing poker or betting on horses and then call it a day when that money is lost. The reason why some people can’t approach losses this way—and can’t necessarily quit while they’re ahead, either—is because gambling addiction is just as much a chronic disease of the brain as drug or alcohol addiction.
Gambling addiction symptoms are very similar to symptoms exhibited by drug addicts. Gambling addicts experience highs while gambling, and intense cravings when they are not. They develop a tolerance to the behavior that requires them to take bigger risks with bigger bets to get the same high. When they attempt to quit due to negative life consequences, they experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, unease, insomnia and agitation.
Finding Patterns in Random Events
A recent study compared the behavior and thinking of regular casino gamblers (28.6% were determined to be gambling addicts) to a control group. Study participants played on two slot machines, one that was programmed with a 67% chance of winning, and one that had a 33% chance of winning. Although the participants were not told these percentages, the researchers say that the appropriate strategy for playing the machines should have been easy to figure out through observation. This was indeed true for the control group. It was not true, however, for the problem gamblers.
The study found that the difficulty compulsive gamblers face in this kind of situation is due to “cognitive distortion,” which is a type of irrational belief that is exaggerated among gambling addicts or individuals experiencing anxiety or depression. One type of cognitive distortion that gambling addicts are particularly vulnerable to is “probability matching”, or finding patterns in random events.
The more symptoms of gambling addiction a person has, the more they will engage in probability matching. For example, they will feel certain that the ball in a roulette wheel is about to fall on red because it has fallen on black for the past seven spins. Although everyone is susceptible to thinking in this way from time to time, the study found that gambling addicts are twice as likely to do so.
How to Know for Sure
If you suspect that you or someone you love is a gambling addict, you should learn how to identify the warning signs of a gambling addiction. This will allow you to recognize the problem and determine what kind of treatment is necessary.
Nine Warning Signs of a Gambling Addiction
1. Using gambling to self-medicate or escape
Gambling is fun and exciting to many people who never develop an addiction. Gambling addicts, however, tend to use this excitement to escape personal conflicts or self-medicate mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety. This is one of the gambling addiction symptoms that responds best to professional treatment, because treating the underlying mental health issue with therapy and/or medication can help break the cycle of addiction by removing the biggest motivation for compulsive gambling.
2. Neglecting work, school, and home obligations to spend time gambling
Just as a drug addict will use compulsively to satisfy cravings for their drug of choice, gambling addicts gamble compulsively to satisfy their own intense cravings. The power of this compulsion will frequently lead problem gamblers to neglect responsibilities at work, school or home because so much of their time and energy is funneled into gambling. Addicts will also lose track of time while gambling, often due to “chasing losses,” where they obsessively attempt to recover lost money by gambling more and more. Gamblers tell themselves that they’ll quit as soon as they break even, while their debts and lost time only accumulate.
3. An obsession with gambling
Gambling addicts become preoccupied with gambling to the point of obsession. Most of their time not spent gambling is spent planning when they will be able to gamble next, or how they will get hold of more gambling money. This obsession contributes to their neglect of relationships and responsibilities, because it is difficult for the addict to focus on anything unrelated to their drug of choice, i.e. gambling. This is another of the warning signs of gambling addiction that compulsive gamblers share in common with drug addicts.
4. Financial hardships caused by gambling
Once a gambling addiction takes hold, debt will inevitably follow. Although there are rare wins in gambling, there is truth in the saying, “the house always wins.” Gambling is a profitable business, and casinos, online poker sites, and lottery programs earn those profits through the billions of dollars that gamblers lose while playing. Addicts will start asking loved ones for money to bail them out, sell or pawn their belongings, or even resort to fraud, theft and other illegal activities in their desperation to recover their losses. Spending money that is needed for other things, like food, bills, or rent, on gambling could be an early warning sign of a gambling addiction.
5. Endangering or losing jobs, relationships and opportunities at school or work
Financial hardship is one of the warning signs of gambling addiction that is exacerbated by other gambling addiction symptoms, such as losing jobs or opportunities to advance at school or work. This kind of loss can be an indirect result of gambling, like when obsession gets in the way of an addict following through on their responsibilities and goals, or it can be a direct result of a gambler’s compulsion, like when an addict is caught gambling on the job, or embezzling money to cover gambling debts.
Even when the problem is obvious to everyone in the compulsive gambler’s life, many addicts will continue to deny or minimize the problem. They will insist that they have it under control, lying about how often they gamble, how much they bet, and how much money they owe. Denial is one of the gambling addiction symptoms that presents a major obstacle to seeking treatment, because you can’t ask for help until you admit you have a problem.
7. Withdrawing from friends and family
Whether out of guilt, a desire to keep the addiction secret, or as a reaction to loved ones who have expressed concern about noticeable gambling addiction symptoms, compulsive gamblers often withdraw from friends and family, avoiding them both emotionally and physically. Secretive behavior and social isolation are more warning signs of gambling addiction that are also signs of drug addiction.
8. Continuing to gamble despite the negative consequences
Despite recognizing many gambling addiction symptoms in themselves, and even after suffering serious consequences due to gambling, such as losing a job, a spouse, a home, or getting in legal trouble, compulsive gamblers will continue to gamble. This is partly because, like with many drug addictions, gambling is an addiction that feeds on itself. Addicts seek to solve the problems caused by their gambling with more gambling, feeling sure that a big win is just around the corner.
9. Feeling incapable of controlling their behavior despite wanting to
Many compulsive gamblers sincerely want to stop gambling, but find themselves incapable of doing so—at least without professional help. In fact, without treatment, the problem is more likely to escalate over time, as an increasing tolerance to the “high” of gambling, along with mounting financial problems, will push the addict towards larger stakes bets. Gambling addicts who try to quit will often return to gambling because they begin to suffer withdrawal symptoms such as restlessness, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, and depression.
Types of Gambling Addictions
It is important to pay attention to any changes in behavior, as many people can be in the problem stage of a gambling addiction, where intervening can help avoid a full-on gambling addiction.
- Problem Gambling: Gamblers who are not completely under the control of their addiction, but who still engage in gambling habits that disrupt their life (such as frequently lying to loved ones about how much money they lose) are referred to as problem gamblers. Some people exist at this low level of behavioral disorder for extended periods of time, even forever, but for many, problematic gambling will rapidly progress to a more dangerous level of addiction.
- Binge Gambling: This type of gambling addict may go through long phases where they don’t gamble at all and appear to be in complete control. They may even refrain from gambling most of the time. On the rare occasions that the binge gambler does gamble, however, the addiction will surface through behaviors such as gambling for long stretches without sleep as they chase losses, unable to stop now that they’ve started.
- Compulsive Gambling: This type of gambler is the most extreme form of the addiction. Compulsive, or pathological, gamblers are consistently unable to control their gambling behavior, no matter how high the risk or how severe the consequences. Their lives continue to revolve around gambling, no matter how much they’ve already lost, financially, emotionally or psychologically.
Recognizing the problem
Some compulsive gamblers will show some but not all of the warning signs of a gambling addiction, and some may even be able to quit for a period of time. In a way, this lull is like the remission that can be experienced in certain physical diseases. Without treatment, the remission will pass, and the disease of addiction will start causing destruction again.
Step one of recovery is for addicts to recognize the warning signs of a gambling addiction and admit they have a problem. Denial is one of the gambling addiction symptoms that creates a major stumbling block to recovery. Overcoming denial is the only way to open the door to healing.
What Kinds of Treatments Are Available?
There are many gambling addiction treatment options available, and many levels of care to choose from. Compulsive gamblers can check into an inpatient treatment program, take part in an outpatient program, or get the bulk of their therapy through support groups such as Gamblers Anonymous, a program based on the 12-steps that originated with Alcoholics Anonymous.
Other treatments include:
- Medication – Early results from studies done on medications to treat gambling addiction seem to show that antidepressants and opioid antagonists like naltrexone can be very helpful to some compulsive gamblers.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – CBT is a form of therapy that helps patients free themselves from negative and destructive beliefs and behaviors, while learning healthier thought patterns and beneficial coping techniques to help them deal with triggers that would have previously led them to gamble.
A Brighter Future
Addiction treatment is not a one-time cure-all for compulsive gambling. Even after treatment, gambling addiction symptoms may resurface during a period of relapse. However, relapse does not have to mean failure. Addicts who have previously been in treatment will be able to improve more quickly the second time around, because they have already acquired the tools they need for recovery.
Keeping Recovery Alive
It is important to remember that recovery is like a living thing that needs to be nurtured. It will need more care in its younger days than it will later, but like all living things, it never stops having needs. Taking care of yourself equals taking care of your recovery. Good self-care, attending support groups, and developing positive emotional and physical outlets are all key aspects of keeping your recovery alive.