Gambling Addiction

Written by Mara Tyler | Published on July 14, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on July 14, 2014

What Is Gambling?

For the most part, gambling is a socially acceptable behavior — when done in moderation. Gambling addiction is another story. The National Gambling Impact Study Commission (NGISC) estimates that gambling addiction affects approximately 2 to 5 percent of Americans.

Someone with a gambling addiction may feel a need to buy lottery tickets, visit casinos, play slot machines, bet on sports, or gamble online. The type or frequency of gambling may vary, but an addict will typically be unable to control their behavior. They’ll continue gambling despite negative social, financial, or legal consequences.

Several factors can increase your risk of compulsive gambling. The gambling addict’s brain appears to respond to the act of gambling in the same way the alcoholic brain responds to a drink. This means that as the gambler feeds their habit, their addiction will grow.

Recent research suggests that an area of the brain called the insula may be overactive in most people addicted to gambling. This hyperactive region may cause the distorted thinking that enables gamblers to see patterns in random sequences and continue playing after near misses.   

While research has shown the majority of gambling addicts to be men, this type of addiction is not uncommon among women.

Symptoms and Signs

While addicts of all kinds will try to hide their addiction, gambling may be more difficult to conceal. Gambling addicts must have frequent access to casinos or online gambling pools. Even if they gamble at home when no one is around, the problem will begin showing itself in other areas of the gambler’s life.

It’s also important to remember that a compulsive gambler may not gamble frequently, but when they do gamble, they may be unable to stop.

Some or all of the following behaviors may be present:

  • obsessing over any type of gambling
  • avoiding work or other commitments in order to gamble
  • neglecting bills and expenses in order to use the money for gambling
  • disintegrating relationships or friendships
  • losing house, job, car, or other personal possessions
  • stealing money
  • lying about the gambling habit
  • selling possessions in order to gamble
  • gambling to feel better about life
  • failing to control the gambling
  • feeling guilty after a gambling session
  • taking bigger and bigger risks

Treatment Options

With the right treatment, gambling addiction is manageable. Unlike someone with a food addiction, a compulsive gambler does not need the object of their addiction to survive. They simply need to learn how to develop a healthy and balanced relationship with money. A program of recovery can assist with impulse control.

Occasional gambling may lead to relapse. Like a drug addict, a gambling addict will want to quit completely. In general, gambling addiction is treated with similar methods used for treating other addictions.

Inpatient Rehabilitation Program

An inpatient program at a treatment center can be a good start for someone with a severe gambling addiction. It requires the person to stay in the facility for a set amount of time, anywhere from 30 days to an entire year. This type of program may be good for someone who is unable to avoid casinos or other gambling venues without help.

Outpatient Rehabilitation Program

An outpatient treatment program is a more common option for gambling addicts. In this setting, patients attend classes at a facility, but continue to live at home and attend daily activities, such as going to work or school. The program will likely include group sessions and one-on-one therapy.

12-Step Programs

Programs like Gamblers Anonymous (GA) may be helpful for people who can’t afford other treatments. A 12-step program will also help them transition back to their day-to-day life.

These 12-step programs follow the same model as Alcoholics Anonymous and can help the addict build a support network of other recovered gambling addicts. Addicts may meet one or more times per week for group sessions.

Psychotherapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Someone with a gambling addict may also benefit from individual therapy. Gambling addiction can often stem from deeper emotional or avoidance issues that need to be dealt with in order to change self-destructive patterns. Counseling gives the person addicted to gambling a place to open up and address these problems.

Medication

In some cases, medication is necessary to help the person overcome gambling urges. A gambling addiction might be the result of a mental health condition, like bipolar disorder. In these cases, the addict must manage the underlying condition in order to help with impulse control.

Expectations

Like any addiction, compulsive gambling can be difficult to stop. Since it’s also not one of the more “mainstream” addictions, someone addicted to gambling may find it embarrassing to admit they have a problem. This is also true because many people gamble socially without developing a habit. Overcoming this shame will be a big step towards recovery.

A recovery program and lifestyle changes can help a person addicted to gambling abstain. In most cases, dealing with the financial consequences of gambling is the hardest part of recovery. In the beginning, the person may need to turn over money responsibilities to a spouse or trusted friend. Also, it is usually necessary to avoid places where triggers may occur, such as casinos or bars.

Failing to treat a gambling problem could result in financial ruin. It can also cost friendships and family support. However, people addicted to gambling can mend these relationships through recovery.

Resources

Several organizations provide information about gambling addiction and treatment options. They may guide you to local support groups and provide online help.

The following resources may be helpful if you suspect you may have a problem, or if you’re concerned about a friend or family member:

  • Debtors Anonymous
  • Gamblers Anonymous
  • ProblemGambling.com
  • The National Council on Problem Gambling
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