Signs You May Have a Gambling Addiction

Woman using slot machine

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Gambling addiction is a term that is sometimes used to described a psychological condition that is formally known as gambling disorder. 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, Fifth Edition" (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 Gambling Addiction

Gambling addiction 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:

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

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 people who don't have an addiction, 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.

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

Risk Factors for Gambling Addiction

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: Anyone can develop a gambling addiction, but the mean age is around 36.
  • 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 addiction 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 addiction, including being impulsive and highly competitive.
  • Sex: Gambling disorder is present in 4.2% of men compared to 2.9% of women.


The exact causes of gambling disorder are not known, but a combination of factors may play a part. Genetics, age, sex, personality, other mental health conditions, and experiences can contribute to the development of a gambling addiction.

Cognitive Distortions in Gambling Addiction

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. In reality, 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.

Gambling Addiction 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 gamble as a way to cope with negative emotions like anger, frustration, stress, loneliness, boredom, or disappointment.
  • Substance use: Using drugs or alcohol can impair judgment and reduce impulse control, making it hard to resist gambling.

Treatment for Gambling Addiction

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


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.


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.

Mutual Support Groups

Support groups like Gamblers Anonymous (Gam-Anon), are often used as part of treatment and to prevent relapse. In addition to offering important social support, talking to others who have similar experiences can be a way to gain information, tips, and encouragement.

SMART Recovery is a CBT-based alternative to 12-step programs. The program focuses on helping people improve their motivation to quit, deal with urges to gamble, address other problems that contribute to gambling, and find balance in their lives. The group also has an online community that offers support, local in-person meetings, and online meetings.

Gambling Addiction Controversies

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. This is why 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. This funding has greatly increased public awareness of gambling problems and treatment services, but there is a potential conflict of interest when funding comes from a source that makes a profit from gambling addiction.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why is gambling addictive?

    Gambling is addictive because it stimulates the brain's reward system. Similar to alcohol and drugs, gambling activates the brain's reward system, which leads to feelings of satisfaction and pleasure. Continued exposure causes the brain to respond less to rewards, so it takes more stimulation to continue producing the same pleasurable effects. 

  • How do you help someone with a gambling addiction?

    Talking about the problem and encouraging them to get help are important first steps. Emphasize that you are concerned, that you care, and that you can help them find the support they need to address their gambling addiction. While you cannot force them to seek treatment, you can offer to go with them to therapy appointments or support group meetings.

  • How do you overcome a gambling addiction?

    Self-help strategies and support groups can also be beneficial. As you are recovering, find ways to avoid your gambling triggers and look for alternatives to gambling. Utilize distractions when you feel the urge to gamble or enlist the help of a friend who can talk to you until the urge passes. If you are still struggling, reach out to a therapist. Effective treatments are available that can help you overcome a gambling addiction, including psychotherapy and medication.

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By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.