Signs You Might Have a Gambling Problem

Woman using slot machine

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Once referred to as compulsive or pathological gambling, gambling disorder is currently the only behavioral addiction included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Previously, pathological gambling was classified as an "impulse control disorder." In the DSM-5, pathological gambling was renamed to gambling disorder and moved to a new category, "addiction and related disorders."

Not all people who gamble have a problem, and in fact there are several types of gamblers, including professional and social gamblers. However, there are certain key characteristics that people with gambling addictions tend to share. Knowing the signs can help ensure that you or someone you love gets help and gets on the road to recovery.

Signs of Compulsive Gambling

Gambling disorder involves maladaptive patterns of gambling behavior that the individual persists with despite negative consequences. This is consistent with behavior patterns observed in other addictions. 

Signs of pathological gambling include:

  • Preoccupation with gambling
  • Difficulty controlling gambling behavior, and unsuccessful efforts to stop
  • Negative consequences, such as family and job disruption and lying about the extent of involvement with gambling
  • Financial problems due to gambling, gambling with increasing amounts of money to achieve desired excitement, and stealing money to fund gambling
  • Chasing losses (continuing to gamble to win back money you previously lost)

Money is central to the experience of gambling. People with gambling addiction, as with other people, attach many different positive attributes to money, such as power, comfort, security and freedom. Unlike other people, they fail to recognize that gambling puts them at risk of losing all of these attributes and that gambling is a random process, where the odds are stacked against them, so they are more likely to lose than to win.

Furthermore, when they do win, people with gambling addictions tend to gamble away their winnings quickly.

Risk Factors

A gambling disorder can result from a combination of genetic, environmental, psychological, and social factors, many of which are still being researched. Some of the most common risk factors include:

  • Age: Individuals under age 35 as well as seniors are more prone to developing a gambling addiction.
  • Gender: Gambling disorder is present in 4.2% of men compared to 2.9% of women.
  • Genetics: Family history has been found to play a role in pathological gambling, with first-degree relatives of compulsive gamblers more likely to develop a gambling disorder than those with no family history.
  • Mental health: More than 95% of people with a gambling disorder also meet the criteria for a psychiatric disorder, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug use disorders, and personality disorders. Rates of alcohol use disorder are roughly five to six times greater among individuals with a gambling disorder.
  • Military status: Studies show that veterans have higher rates of gambling disorder than the general population, and these rates are even higher if they also have co-occurring mental health conditions like PTSD, substance use disorder, and suicidality.
  • Personality: Various personality traits have been linked with gambling disorder, including being impulsive and highly competitive.

Cognitive Distortions

Gambling is an ineffective and unreliable way of acquiring money. For someone to become addicted to gambling, their cognitions or thought processes must become distorted to the point where this central truth eludes them. Some researchers classify the cognitive distortions of gambling pathology into three categories: incorrect understanding of probability, illusion of control, and superstitions.

Here are a few ways the thoughts of people with a gambling problem are distorted:

  • Attribution: Believing winnings occur as a result of their efforts and not randomly
  • Chasing losses: Believing they have not really lost money to gambling, but that it can be “won back” by further gambling
  • Magical thinking: Believing that certain thoughts will bring about a win, that random outcomes can be predicted, or that they are special and will be rewarded with a win
  • Near-miss beliefs: Reducing the number of losing experiences in their minds by thinking they “almost” won, which justifies further attempts to win; near misses can be as stimulating, or even more stimulating, than actual wins
  • Personification of a gambling device: Attributing human characteristics to inanimate objects that are part of the gambling process—for example, thinking that a particular machine is punishing, rewarding, or taunting them
  • Selective recall: Remembering their wins and forgetting or glossing over their losses
  • Superstitions: Believing that lucky charms, certain articles of clothing, ways of sitting, etc., may cause a win or a loss
  • Systems: Believing that by learning or figuring out a certain system (a pattern of betting in a particular way), the house advantage can be overcome; the increased computerization of gambling machinery has ensured that wins are now truly random, so it is impossible to predict a payout, and, of course, it is still heavily stacked in favor of the “house”

Many of these thought distortions lead to highly ritualized patterns of behavior, which are characteristic of addictions.

Treatment

Recovering from a gambling disorder takes hard work, however, there are several treatments that have been found to be effective, including:

  • Psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy and behavioral therapy are often used to help change the thoughts and behaviors that lead to gambling. Family therapy may also be encouraged if the gambling has caused relationship conflicts.
  • Medication. Although there are no FDA-approved medications for gambling disorder, antidepressants and mood stabilizers have been found helpful for those with other psychiatric disorders that often accompany a gambling problem, such as anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and personality disorders. In addition, narcotic antagonists have been found useful in treating co-occurring substance use disorders.
  • Self-help groups. Support groups like Gamblers Anonymous (Gam-Anon), are often used as part of treatment and to prevent relapse.

Triggers

While triggers are not the same for everyone, there are several common ones that can interfere with the road to recovery for someone with a gambling problem, including:

  • Environmental triggers: Unfortunately, there are many people, places, and things that can tempt you to return to gambling, including stores that sell scratch cards and lottery tickets, bars and clubs with slot machines, online gambling and wagering sites, as well as friends who you used to gamble with.
  • Financial trouble: For many, gambling can seem like a quick fix to any debt or financial problems.
  • Negative emotions: Many people turn to gambling as a way to cope with negative emotions like anger, frustration, stress, loneliness, boredom, or disappointment.
  • Substance use: Using drugs or alcohol can impair judgement and reduce impulse control, making it hard to resist gambling.

Controversy

Like other behavioral addictions, gambling addiction is a controversial idea. Many experts balk at the idea that gambling can constitute an addiction, believing that there has to be a psychoactive substance that produces symptoms, such as physical tolerance and withdrawal, for an activity to be a true addiction.

Gambling, however, is by far the best-represented behavioral addiction in research literature and treatment services; therefore, pathological gambling has the most credibility among the behavioral addictions.

This is partly due to financial input from the gambling industry, whose contribution is tiny compared to the massive profits they make but greatly exceeds funding for research or treatment of any other behavioral addiction. Despite the fact that this funding has greatly increased public awareness of gambling problems and treatment services, the potential conflict of interest when funding comes from a source that makes a profit from gambling addiction is obvious.

A Word From Verywell

Pathological gambling can have devastating effects on individuals and families, but recovery is possible. If you believe that you or someone you love has a gambling disorder, talk to your doctor or mental health professional about your treatment options. Talking to a financial counselor can also help you sort out any difficulties with money as a result of your gambling, and help you better understand the potential long-term financial impact.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.


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Additional Reading
  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-5. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.