Have you ever picked up a scratcher from the gas station and felt some excitement as you used a coin to scrape away at the card? Do you rush out to hat about a trip to the casino to try your hand at the slots? Maybe a poker night with friends or some casual bets on this week’s games are more your speed. Read more about gambling addiction.
An estimated 85 percent of Americans have gambled at least once in their lives. 60 percent have gambled in some way during the last year. Plenty of people can place a bet or two and leave it at that whether they win or not.
Problems arise for the people who cannot stop purchasing lotto tickets or placing bets. It doesn’t matter how much they win or lose; they’ll gamble until they have no more money left to put down. These individuals struggle with gambling addiction, a compulsive problem that mirrors the battle with drug and alcohol addiction.
What exactly is problem gambling and how do you know if you should be concerned about you or someone you love? How does someone develop an addiction to gambling and what can they do to address it? Continue reading to learn more about gambling addiction.
What is Gambling Addiction
Gambling addiction describes recurring and progressive problem gambling behavior that leads to impairment or distress. Before the current diagnosis in the Fifth Edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the condition had no official clinical recognition. It was originally classified as pathological gambling and an impulse control disorder.
Problem gambling caused clinically significant symptoms, though, which prompted clinicians to look further into the condition. They noticed the issues seen in patients with pathological gambling behaviors were similar to those who dealt with drug and alcohol addiction.
Updates to the DSM-5 brought changes to the classification of gambling addiction. The DSM-5 renamed the diagnosis to gambling disorder and reclassified it as a substance-related and addictive disorder. It also changed the criteria required to meet conditions for the diagnosis.
Today an estimated 2 million people in the United States battle active, clinically significant gambling addiction. An additional 2 to 3 percent of people have problems caused by their gambling behaviors but they do not meet the qualifications for gambling disorder.
Where does the line between problematic gambling and gambling disorder lie?
When Gambling Becomes an Addiction At the beginning of the 2000s, problem gambling behaviors were viewed as a bad habit but not an addiction or disorder. Clinicians didn’t see compulsive gambling as equivalent to other conditions like drug addiction and alcoholism.
The understanding of compulsive gambling has shifted over the last 20 years, though. Psychologists, counselors, and doctors agree that some cases of pathological gambling are more akin to addiction than they initially thought.
The DSM-5 outlines nine criteria displayed by individuals with problematic gambling behaviors. An individual must show at least four of the following behaviors in the past 12 months:
- Recurring or constant preoccupation with gambling, including reliving previous gambling experiences, planning out the next experience, or thinking of ways to get money to gamble
- Needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money to reach the desired level of excitement
- Attempting but failing to control, cut back, or stop gambling
- Feeling irritable and restless when trying to control, cut back on,
or stop gambling
- Turning to gambling when feeling helpless, guilty, anxious, or depressed
- Losing money one day then returning another day to break even (“chasing” losses)
- Lying to family members, friends, therapist, or others to hide the extent of their gambling
- Risking relationships, employment, educational or career opportunities as a result of gambling
- Relying on money from others to escape financial problems that result from gambling
Additionally, any problematic gambling behaviors cannot be explained by a manic episode that is caused by another disorder.
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How Gambling Addiction Starts
Like other addictions, no one starts gambling thinking they will develop an addiction to gambling. It starts innocent enough with a trip to Las Vegas or a few entertaining rounds of online poker. Gambling Most people play for fun in beginning, the excitement of the win keeping them playing for a few rounds.
When someone wins a bet, whether it’s a single hand or the entire pool, the brain releases a chemical called dopamine. This chemical is a key aspect of the brain’s reward system and provides a feeling of satisfaction upon release.
Gambling addiction starts when people start chasing the dopamine release that happens when they win. They stop playing for fun and now play to feel the satisfaction and euphoria of bets that turn out in their favor. It’s not about gambling anymore; it’s about the “high” they feel from winning.
One thing to keep in mind as you learn about gambling addiction is that not all people who struggle with their gambling are the same. Although gambling addiction tends to get worse over time, some don’t progress as far as others do. There’s no way to determine how bad a person’s problem will become once it starts, though.
How Gambling Addiction Works
Most clinicians thought gambling addiction was a compulsion problem, not an addiction problem. Both compulsive and addictive behaviors relieve a person’s anxiety. But addictions are characterized by the inability to stop acting out on harmful behaviors despite the negative consequences that happen as a result.
Gambling addiction differs from compulsive behaviors because these individuals aren’t simply gambling to feel better. Although it might start as a fun or enjoyable activity, every gambling addict crosses the line at some point. Problems arise as their losses take over and their wins become fewer and further between.
These individuals put everything on the line to feel the rush of another win. They’ll drain their bank accounts, open credit cards, borrow from friends and family, take equity out on their home. Significant relationships, employment, and reputation all come after the rush.
The American Psychological Association categorized gambling addiction with drug and alcohol addiction once they realized how similar the two conditions are. People who are addicted to gambling display much of the same behaviors as those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. The excitement of the win becomes the guiding force in the lives of gambling addicts.
Gambling Curiosities and Facts
When people think of gambling, the bright, flashy casinos of Las Vegas and Atlantic City are often the first thing to come to mind. Gambling addiction doesn’t only live inside casinos, though. There are many different types of betting activities that can result in problematic gambling behaviors. These include things like:
- Card games (Poker, Blackjack)
- Slot machines
- Sports or race betting
- Lottery tickets
- Bets with friends
This doesn’t mean someone who enjoys playing cards with friends or betting on a game during the weekend is automatically a gambling addict. There is a big difference between casual betting and full-blown gambling addiction.
Celebrities Who Have Gambling Addiction
Growing numbers of celebrities have come forward about their struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, but gambling addiction as well. It’s further proof that addiction affects anyone regardless of age, gender, status, or more. The following are a few celebrities who have a gambling addiction.
Charles Barkley, a former NBA player, has had a very public struggle with his gambling addiction. He speaks openly about his problems with gambling and sports betting specifically. Barkley estimates that he’s lost upwards of $30 million while chasing his wins in Las Vegas.
Among his numerous other escapades, Charlie Sheen reportedly had an extensive stint with sports betting as well. In 2006, his ex-wife Denise Richards alleged he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars while betting on sports every day.
Ben Affleck played cards with the best of them while at the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas but didn’t have much luck in his games. He reportedly hosted a regular poker game for Hollywood’s elite at the Grand Havana Hotel in Beverly Hills. During this time, Affleck supposedly lost multiple thousands in the games he was hosting.
Gladys Knight avoided the drugs and alcohol plaguing her fellow musical stars in the 1970s but gambling addiction brought her to her knees. She bet tens of thousands of dollars at a time on sports games throughout the 70s and 80s. One day, Knight reported putting a stop to it when she woke up and realized how out of control it was.
Gambling Addiction in the US
Las Vegas is notorious for its flashy casinos along the strip, luring in millions to try their hand throughout the year. Atlantic City offers the East Coast equivalent with plenty of casinos to keep those on the opposite coast coming in for more. Additionally, there is some form of legal gambling in every state except for Hawaii and Utah.
According to Statista, the gambling industry in the United States contributes more than 137 billion dollars to the economy each year. Four out of five adults in America have gambled at least once in their lives. About 2 million adults report a gambling addiction. Additionally, an estimated 20 million have a problem that gets in the way of their work or social life.
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What Causes Gambling Addiction?
Not everyone who likes to play cards places bets with friends on sports games, or even regularly stops by the casino develops a gambling addiction. The majority of people who gamble do so responsibly. They’re able to enjoy the times they win and walk away once they lose. They have a set amount they’re willing to spend and stop once they reach it.
Then others who cross the line from casual or even regular gambling into problem behaviors. They start chasing their losses, borrowing money they can’t pay back, and spending most of their time thinking about when they can gamble next.
What causes gambling addiction, though? Why can some people control their betting and quit when they’re down while others will bet themselves into debt? Is there something that separates these individuals from their more responsible counterparts?
Is Gambling Addiction A Mental Illness?
Gambling addiction is classified as a mental health disorder, similar to drug or alcohol use disorder. Problem gambling is oftentimes a progressive condition, meaning it gets worse as time goes on. People tend to place riskier bets or stake higher claims to achieve the desired rush they’re looking for.
It’s difficult to know right away whether someone will shift from gambling for fun into gambling addiction. There isn’t one single factor to point to that causes people to lose control of their gambling. Current research suggests that a combination of factors contribute to a person developing disordered gambling behaviors.
Is Gambling In the DSM?
The American Psychiatric Association publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. It contains standardized criteria and categories for all mental disorders to guide clinicians when diagnosis patients.
Gambling addiction is included as an official diagnosis in the latest version of the DSM. It’s recognized as a problematic condition that is progressive. Including problematic gambling in the DSM is an important step toward ensuring those who need help receive it, whether through treatment or other means.
When was Gambling Addiction Added to the DSM?
Problem gambling disorders were first included in the Fourth Edition of the DSM. Clinicians recognized the difficulties that gambling could cause for an individual but didn’t understand the addictive nature of the condition. It referred to the condition as “pathological gambling” and qualified it as an impulse-control disorder, not as an addictive disorder.
Medical professionals considered gambling addiction as a compulsive problem rather than an actual addiction. Clinicians recognized the difficulties that gambling could cause for an individual but didn’t understand the addictive nature of the condition. They believed people used it to relieve anxiety but didn’t realize the pleasure-chasing aspect of addiction.
The 5th Edition of the DSM, DSM-5, changed the name and classification of gambling addiction. Now gambling addiction is officially called a gambling disorder and is classified as a substance-related and addictive disorder.
These changes reflect the results of further research and a deeper understanding of problematic gambling. They help clinicians make more informed decisions when diagnosing the individuals they work with.
Is Gambling Addiction Genetic?
Current research shows that gambling addiction, like drug and alcohol addiction, is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, and environmental factors. There isn’t one specific cause to point to as being responsible for problematic gambling behaviors.
In terms of genetics, certain people have a genetic predisposition for addictive tendencies, such as impulsive behavior and reward-seeking. Some research also suggests that individuals who struggle with addiction have naturally underactive reward circuitry in their brains. People with these predispositions are more at risk for developing a gambling addiction.
Biological factors like pre-existing mental disorders, such as mood disorders, antisocial personality disorder, or schizophrenia put people more at risk of problematic gambling. Naturally low levels of serotonin also lead people to seek out thrilling activities and gambling could be one they turn to.
Environmental aspects of gambling addiction include a wide variety of possibilities. Individuals who win a large sum of money when they first start gambling are more likely to chase that first win. People with money problems, who are lonely, or recently lost a job or had a divorce may also turn to problem gambling behaviors. Living near casinos puts people at risk, too.
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Why Gambling Addiction is Bad
Gambling addiction is a serious condition because it affects not only the person with the gambling problem but also the people around them. The consequences of their behavior often impact those nearest to them, especially family and close friends.
Whatever the person’s betting activity of choice is, it becomes more important than anything else in their life. The dangers of gambling addiction are not only financial but social, psychological, and even physical in some cases.
It leads to far more than the loss of thousands of dollars or digging a deep hole of debt. Gambling addiction can end in broken families, neglected children, and lost friendships. It results in altered brain chemistry and ongoing psychological consequences.
Why is gambling addiction bad? How does it impact the gambler and the people around them? What are some of the results of severe gambling addiction and how do those repercussions ripple out to affect far more than the person with the problem?
How Gambling Addiction Affects the Brain
Gambling addiction affects the brain in a manner somewhat similar to drugs and alcohol. Although gambling doesn’t cause a direct chemical interaction that substances do, it still has incredible effects on the way the brain functions.
People with gambling addictions tend to be thrill-seekers and chase the excitement of the win. They might not sink into a severe problem immediately, but that first win ignites the reward and pleasure center in their brain. People who don’t struggle with addiction can walk away without much second thought but that isn’t the case for gambling addicts.
Some continue seeking the dopamine release that comes with winning a bet. They chase that rewarding feeling, whether it’s a winning hand in poker, a big spin on a slot machine, or a sports bet coming through.
As gambling addicts play more and more, they dull their reward systems to the dopamine release that their initial wins used to bring. The longer they play the more they need to bet or play to achieve the feeling they’re looking for. They need to make increasingly larger bets or play at higher stakes tables as time goes on.
Not only are they numbing their brain’s reward system concerning gambling, but this lowered enjoyment carries into other aspects of their lives. They are often irritable, frustrated, or angry unless they’re gambling. Spending time with friends and family or participating in activities they used to enjoy are no longer as entertaining. Gambling addiction hijacks their brain.
How Gambling Addiction Affects the Family
As people fall further into their gambling addiction, the choices they make affect the people around them. Their families are usually the first to experience this. Spouses and children have to deal with the fallout of the gambler’s behavior, both directly and indirectly.
Gambling addiction removes a person from their family both physically and mentally. They spend much of their time gambling, whether it’s at casinos, bars, or even over the internet on the computer. Then the times when they are around they still aren’t quite present because they’re thinking about gambling in one way or another.
The financial impact is one of the most obvious ways gambling addiction affects the family. Those who struggle with gambling addictions spend everything they possibly can to place bets. As they start dipping into the negative in their accounts, they start to borrow money from others, convinced they can win it back.
Addiction takes over, though, and they don’t win the money back. They only end up sinking deeper into the claws of gambling addiction as debt starts to build up around them. Credit cards, equity, borrowed money from family and friends. All these financial problems affect not only them but their families as well.
Gambling Addiction and Anxiety
Gambling addiction was initially believed to be a compulsive disorder. Compulsions refer to actions people take to relieve anxiety. They can be as simple as checking the locks or the stove before leaving or more severe to the point of rituals that must be carried out to avoid panicking.
The more researchers and clinicians learned about gambling addiction, though, the more they realized it’s not a compulsive disorder. There are aspects to gambling addiction that involve anxiety and often people who gamble do so to avoid troubles or stresses in their lives. They turn to the excitement of the win to forget about whatever stressors they have.
As addiction sets in, gambling addicts start feeling anxious or on edge when they aren’t gambling. They’re either thinking about when they can place another bet or finding a way to secure the money to place one.
Their anxiety rises until they’re able to gamble again and relieve those overwhelming feelings. The relief is only temporary, though, because the cycle starts all over again as soon as the outcome of the win or the loss comes through.
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Gambling Addiction and Depression
Depression is one of the most common comorbidities with gambling addiction. It doesn’t matter which comes first; gambling addiction often leads to depressive episodes but depression may lead to gambling addiction. Ultimately, though, both conditions exacerbate one another.
Sometimes people with depression find temporary relief from their symptoms through the dopamine release that comes with winning bets. Then they may chase after this rush and find themselves developing a gambling habit before they realize it. Problems arise when their gambling crosses over to a point where they can’t control their betting.
Oftentimes the gambling addiction comes first then the depressive episode follows. It’s overwhelming for people when they first start coming to terms with the reality of their gambling. As they try to control their gambling and realize they can’t, it can lead to serious depressive episodes.
Depression is a serious condition for pathological gamblers who see the extent of their gambling problem. An estimated 20 percent of people with a gambling addiction attempt suicide, higher than the rates of any other addiction. People who struggle with both a gambling addiction and depression should seek help as soon as they’re willing to.
Gambling Addiction and Alcohol Abuse
Alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder is another common co-occurring disorder with gambling addiction. If you’ve ever gambled in a casino you’re well aware of how bottomless the drinks can be when you’re spending enough money. Alcohol abuse is no stranger to casinos and the gamblers inside of them.
As many as 41 percent of people who seek treatment for a gambling disorder also meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. Research shows that alcohol use does decline while individuals are in treatment for their gambling addiction. Incorporating AUD-specific aspects into treatment for problem gambling is a helpful approach to reduce rates of both disorders.
Gambling Addiction and Drug Abuse
While alcohol is more publicly free-flowing and available in casinos, drugs are also a common part of gambling disorder. People with problematic gambling behaviors often have a predisposition for addictive tendencies. Additionally, those with existing drug abuse or substance use disorder problems also tend to show higher rates of gambling.
Some people who gamble may turn to drugs to help them play for longer or to console themselves after a loss. About 21 percent of people with a gambling disorder also qualify as having a substance use disorder. Living with co-occurring gambling addiction and drug abuse problems also affect the chances of long-term recovery from both disorders.
Another interesting observation is the prevalence of gambling addictions among individuals in recovery from substance use disorders. The addictive predisposition for high-risk, high-reward behavior in their active addiction then reflects in their turning to gambling.
Treatment facilities that work with pathological gamblers should also screen for a co-occurring substance use disorder. Individuals with dual diagnosis benefit more from specialized approaches to treatment. If only one portion of the disorder is treated, their chances of remaining in recovery decrease.
Getting Help for Gambling Addiction
Getting honest with yourself and coming to terms with the presence of gambling addiction isn’t easy. Stigma and misunderstanding surround addictions of all types but even fewer people understand gambling addiction. Psychiatry only recently started viewing gambling disorder as a true addictive disorder.
Many people fear being honest about their struggles will affect their employment or relationships. Admitting that you have a gambling problem might be difficult but it’s also the first step you’ll take toward freedom.
Pathological gambling is a persistent and problematic condition but it’s not hopeless; there are options to get help for gambling addiction. It might not be easy to ask but as soon as you’re ready to, the help you need will be there.
Can Gambling Addiction Be Cured?
Gambling addiction is characterized by its chronic, progressive, and relapsing nature. This makes addiction more like heart disease or cancer. Achieving remission is possible, similar to achieving recovery, but being completely cured of the condition is not.
Similar to other addictions there isn’t necessarily a cure for gambling disorder. No type of treatment will completely remove the desire to gamble. Although gambling addiction cannot be cured, though, that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do.
There are still no FDA-approved medications to aid in gambling addiction recovery like there are for opioids or alcohol. Alternative approaches to treat the condition are available but it isn’t as simple as going to treatment or attending a therapy session. Remaining in recovery from gambling addiction requires ongoing attention, practice, and work.
The condition never truly goes away. It may lie dormant for months or years but can just as easily return if someone tries some controlled gambling. Oftentimes the only solution for gambling addiction is entire abstinence but that feels impossible while stuck in the cycle of active addiction.
Who Can Help with Gambling Addiction?
There aren’t many gambling-specific treatment facilities but some centers are equipped to treat those who struggle with compulsive gambling. These programs exist to treat the cycles of active addiction and recovery as well as the thought process that drives compulsive addictive behaviors.
The similarities between substance or alcohol addiction and gambling addiction give facilities the ability to address both conditions. Many people seeking treatment for their gambling problems also have addictions or mental disorders they struggle with.
Effective treatment facilities create a comprehensive, individualized treatment plan that considers each individual’s struggles, from gambling to substances to mental illness. Going to treatment places them in an environment where they can focus entirely on their recovery without any potential distractions.
How is Gambling Addiction Treated?
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most common approach used to treat gambling addiction. CBT operates on the idea that feelings lead to thoughts and thoughts lead to behaviors. If a person’s feelings result in negative thoughts, their negative thoughts are more likely to result in negative behaviors.
CBT challenges these negative thoughts, beliefs, and views of the world. People learn to catch their thoughts as they arise and determine whether they’re unhealthy or irrational. Individuals learn how to discard their inaccurate thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts instead.
Equipping individuals with coping skills and tools to challenge and change their thoughts leads to changes in their behavior. Cognitive-behavioral therapy enables individuals and teaches them to replace their problematic gambling behaviors with productive alternatives.
Mindfulness and meditation are two important aspects of an effective gambling addiction treatment program. Much of gambling addiction relies on impulsive decisions made in the moment without any concern for the lasting repercussions of those choices.
Mindfulness teaches individuals to pause before acting and meditation provide an alternative practice to gambling. These aren’t easy to implement at first; they require dedication and consistent practice to show results. But the results of these coping strategies are life-altering.
Where to Get Help for Gambling Addiction
If you’re interested in learning more about your options for gambling addiction treatment, Hawaii Island Recovery is available. We understand how hard it can be to reach out and ask for help but we want to walk you through the process. We’re here to answer any questions you may have and guide you as you decide which treatment program is right for you.