Whether you bet on sports, scratch cards, roulette, poker, or slots—in a casino or online—problem gambling can strain relationships, interfere with work, and lead to financial catastrophe. You may even do things you never thought you would, like stealing money to gamble or pay your debts. You may think you can’t stop but, with the right help, you can overcome a gambling problem or addiction and regain control of your life. The first step is recognizing and acknowledging the problem.
Understanding gambling addiction and problem gambling
Gambling addiction, also known as compulsive gambling, is a type of impulse-control disorder. Compulsive gamblers can’t control the impulse to gamble, even when they know their gambling is hurting themselves or their loved ones. Gambling is all they can think about and all they want to do, no matter the consequences. Compulsive gamblers keep gambling whether they’re up or down, broke or flush, happy or depressed. Even when they know the odds are against them, even when they can’t afford to lose, people with a gambling addiction can’t “stay off the bet.”
Gamblers can have a problem, however, without being totally out of control. Problem gambling is any gambling behavior that disrupts your life. If you’re preoccupied with gambling, spending more and more time and money on it, chasing losses, or gambling despite serious consequences, you have a gambling problem.
Myths & Facts about Gambling Addiction and Problem Gambling
MYTH: You have to gamble every day to be a problem gambler.
FACT: A problem gambler may gamble frequently or infrequently. Gambling is a problem if it causes problems.
MYTH: Problem gambling is not really a problem if the gambler can afford it.
FACT: Problems caused by excessive gambling are not just financial. Too much time spent on gambling can lead to relationship breakdown and loss of important friendships.
MYTH: Partners of problem gamblers often drive problem gamblers to gamble.
FACT: Problem gamblers often rationalize their behavior. Blaming others is one way to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, including what is needed to overcome the problem.
MYTH: If a problem gambler builds up a debt, you should help them take care of it.
FACT: Quick fix solutions may appear to be the right thing to do. However, bailing the gambler out of debt may actually make matters worse by enabling gambling problems to continue.
Relieving unpleasant and overwhelming feelings without gambling
Unpleasant feelings such as stress, depression, loneliness, fear, and anxiety can trigger compulsive gambling or make it worse. After a stressful day at work, after an argument with your spouse or coworker, or to avoid more time spent on your own, an evening at the track or the casino can seem like a fun, exciting way to unwind and socialize. But there are healthier and far less expensive ways to keep unpleasant feelings in check. These may include exercising, meditating, spending time with friends, taking up new hobbies, or exploring relaxation techniques.
For many people, an important aspect of quitting gambling is to find alternate ways to handle these difficult feelings without gambling. Even when gambling is no longer a part of your life, the painful and unpleasant feelings that may have prompted you to gamble in the past will still remain. So, it’s worth spending some time thinking about the different ways you intend to deal with stressful situations and the daily irritations that would normally trigger you to start gambling.
Signs and symptoms of problem gambling
Gambling addiction is sometimes referred to as the “hidden
illness” because there are no obvious physical signs or symptoms like there are in drug or alcohol addiction. Problem gamblers typically deny or minimize the problem. They also go to great lengths to hide their gambling. For example, problem gamblers often withdraw from their loved ones, sneak around, and lie about where they’ve been and what they’ve been up to.
Do I have a gambling problem?
You may have a gambling problem if you:
- Feel the need to be secretive about your gambling. You might gamble in secret or lie about how much you gamble, feeling others won’t understand or that you will surprise them with a big win.
- Have trouble controlling your gambling. Once you start gambling, can you walk away? Or are you compelled to gamble until you’ve spent your last dollar, upping your bets in a bid to win lost money back?
- Gamble even when you don’t have the money. A red flag is when you are getting more and more desperate to recoup your losses. You may gamble until you’ve spent your last dollar, and then move on to money you don’t have- money to pay bills, credit cards, or things for your children. You may feel pushed to borrow, sell, or even steal things for gambling money. It’s a vicious cycle. You may sincerely believe that gambling more money is the only way to win lost money back. But it only puts you further and further in the hole.
- Family and friends are worried about you. Denial keeps problem gambling going. If friends and family are worried, listen to them carefully. Take a hard look at how gambling is affecting your life. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help. Many older gamblers are reluctant to reach out to their adult children if they’ve gambled away their inheritance. But it’s never too late to make changes for the better.
Treatment for problem gambling
Every gambler is unique and so needs a recovery program tailored specifically to him or her. What works for one gambler won’t necessarily work for you. The biggest step in treatment is realizing you have a problem with gambling. It takes tremendous strength and courage to own up to this, especially if you have lost a lot of money and strained or broken relationships along the way. Don’t despair, and don’t try to go it alone. Many others have been in your shoes and have been able to break the habit.
Overcoming a gambling addiction or problem is never easy. But recovery is possible if you stick with treatment and seek support. To find help in your area, see Resources and References below.
Group support for gambling addiction and problem gambling
Gamblers Anonymous is a twelve-step recovery program patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous. A key part of a 12-step program is choosing a sponsor. A sponsor is a former gambler who has time and experience remaining free from addiction, and can often provide invaluable guidance and support.
Therapy for problem gambling
Cognitive-behavioral therapy for problem gambling focuses on changing unhealthy gambling behaviors and thoughts, such as rationalizations and false beliefs. It also teaches problem gamblers how to fight gambling urges, deal with uncomfortable emotions rather than escape through gambling, and solve financial, work, and relationship problems caused by the addiction.
The goal of treatment is to “rewire” the addicted brain by thinking about gambling in a new way. A variation of cognitive behavioral therapy, called the Four Steps Program, has been used in treatment of compulsive gambling as well. The goal is to change your thoughts and beliefs about gambling in four steps; re-label, reattribute, refocus, and revalue. More comprehensive information about cognitive behavioral therapy and applying it to your situation is found below.
Seeing a therapist does not mean you are weak or can’t handle your problems. Therapy is for people who are smart enough to realize they need help. It can give you tools and support for reframing your thoughts that will last a lifetime.