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Gambling Addiction Overview

No one plans on becoming a problem gambler, but for some of us, the thrill of the bet is just too exciting and we find ourselves forever chasing that next win and forever struggling to find the money we need to cover that last loss. If the way you gamble causes you some problems in your life – then you are a problem gambler. If you can’t control your gambling and gamble even though you know it does you great harm, then you are one of the 2 million pathological gamblers residing in America today. Learn more about the causes and effects of problem gambling, and more importantly, learn what problem gamblers can do to retake control.

What starts off as a bit of harmless fun, for a small percentage of the population, turns into a compulsion to gamble that just can’t be resisted.

If you have a gambling problem your behaviors are causing you harm in some area of your life. Your career may be suffering, as you spend more time thinking about betting than the job – or you may be having money problems, as your gambling losses begin to affect the financial health of your family.

  • If you have a more serious problem, known as pathological gambling disorder, gambling controls your life and you can’t seen to resist your urges to wager, no matter how hard you try.

People who try and fail to control their gambling tend to feel hopeless, and the stress of living with the lies, debt and bad behaviors that accompany a severe gambling problem can worsen how you feel – or in some cases, can even trigger another mental health disorder, like depression, substance abuse or anxiety. Tragically, many with severe gambling problems see suicide as the only way out.

  • Most people that need gambling treatment will never get it. But there is hope and if you get the care you need you can learn to control your behaviors and you can get your life back on track.

With treatment and other professional assistance you can:

Resist urges to gamble – repair damaged relationships – get back in control of your finances and make a reasonable plan to pay of debts.

There is always hope and as no matter how bleak things look, there is always a way out!

What Is Gambling Addiction?

Although for some people, gambling becomes a compulsive behavior that closely mimics the compulsive consumption of drugs or alcohol, the term gambling addiction is not a clinically used term. The two terms most commonly used to describe harmful gambling behaviors are:

  • Problem Gambling
  • Pathological Gambling (also known as compulsive gambling)

Problem Gamblers – Gamble in a way that causes them or their family some harm. Patterns of gambling that cause occasional money shortages in the home could be an example of problem gambling. It is estimated that as many 2% to 3% of Americans meet the criteria for problem gambling. Problem gamblers are still in control of their gambling – they are not yet compulsive gamblers.

Pathological Gamblers – Pathological gambling disorder is considered an impulse control disorder by the American Psychological Association (The APA); a disorder characterized by a reoccurring or continual loss of control over gambling, by gambling that continues even in the face of seriously adverse consequences and by irrational thinking. The APA considers pathological gambling to be a progressive (without intervention it gets worse) disorder that responds well to treatment. There are an estimated 2 million pathological gamblers in America. 1

People with pathological gambling disorder cannot resist their impulses to gamble – gambling and getting the money to gamble becomes the single most important thing in life. This can obviously lead to great financial, work, legal and family/relationship problems.

‘Gambling addict’ is not a medical term, but it is often used as it illustrates the similarities between the compulsions a pathological gambler feels to wager and the cravings an alcoholic or drug addict feels for their substance of choice. Gamblers also experience tolerance (needing to bet greater amounts to get the same thrill) and withdrawal (feeling anxious or irritable when they cannot gamble).

Isn’t a Gambling Problem Just a Financial Problem?

Although pathological gamblers generally have severe financial problems, compulsive gambling is far more than a financial problem and settling a pathological gambler's debts will never solve the underlying problem.

Pathological gamblers have a compulsive need to bet, and this need overrides most other needs in importance. Because pathological gamblers cannot resist their urges to gamble, the needs of family, work or school must take a back seat.

Some of the common consequences of problem and pathological gambling include:2

  • A gambler might spend a great deal of time online or in a casino, neglecting other responsibilities
  • A desperate gambler may commit crimes or behave unethically to get money to pay gambling debts, or to gamble again
  • A gambler may feel irritable or anxious when not gambling, or feel guilt for losses accrued – these feelings can lead to behaviors that harm family and other close relationships
  • Pathological gamblers are often secretive about their gambling and may have to lie or conceal their activities – which can lead to trust issues in close relationships
  • Pathological gamblers are more prone to excessive stress and worry, which can cause ulcers, digestive problems and other physical complaints. Pathological gamblers are also at greater risk of anxiety disorders, depression and substance abuse.
  • Pathological gamblers are at an increased risk for suicide. Close family members of pathological gamblers are also at an increased risk of suicide

Although pathological gamblers often bring financial ruin upon themselves, and upon their families – the consequences for this loss of control are not only financial in nature.

Gambling Problem Warning Signs

Here are some warning signs of a gambling problem to be on the lookout for.3

  • Do you think about gambling a lot – or think about how to get the money you need to gamble a lot?
  • Do you gamble to escape - gambling when you’re feeling down, depressed, angry (or any other negative emotions)?
  • Do you try to win back losses with more gambling?
  • Do you owe anyone gambling money?
  • Do you find that you need to bet greater amounts to get the same level of excitement you used to get with smaller amounts?
  • Have you ever tried to cut back on your gambling, but been unable to do so?
  • When you try to keep from gambling, do you feel irritable?
  • Have you ever broken the law to get money to gamble?
  • Do you lie to others about the extent of your gambling or your gambling problems?
  • Has your gambling ever lost you a job or a relationship?

Answering yes to any of the above questions indicates a possible gambling problem. Those that answer yes to 5 or more of the above questions meet the APA criteria for pathological gambling.4

Gambling Addiction Statistics

  • An estimated 20% of pathological gamblers will commit suicide and most will seriously consider taking their own life at some point.5
  • More money is made on gambling in America than on the combined revenues of all recorded music, movies, spectator sports (NFL, MBA, NBA etc.) theme parks and cruise ships.
  • 5% of American gamblers (problem and pathological gamblers) contribute 25% of casino and lottery profits6

Who Is at Risk of Gambling Addiction?

Although anyone can develop a problem with gambling, people in certain situation are at statistically greater risk, such as people:7

  • Who started gambling at a younger age
  • Who have a drug or alcohol abuse problem, or those who have a co-occurring mental illness
  • Who live in environments where gambling is available and or/accepted
  • Who grew up in families where one or both parents had gambling problems

Teen Gambling

Gambling is accessible and exciting to teens, and unfortunately, too many teens get caught up in something that starts out as fun and games, and becomes much more than that.

Research studies on teen gambling consistently show that teens are at far greater risk of gambling problems than adults – with an estimated 4% to 8% of teens displaying pathological gambling behaviors.

(The APA states that 10% to 15% of adolescents have a gambling problem and that 6% of teens who gamble will become pathological gamblers)8

Teens have incredibly easy access to gambling (bet with friends, play online poker, buy lottery tickets etc.). Just 20 years ago, Americans needed to travel to Vegas or Atlantic City to legally place a bet – now, an American teen need only type a few words and she can start gambling online, at any time of day or night, with complete anonymity and in complete secrecy.

Teens are attracted to gambling because:

  • It’s exciting

  • It’s socially accepted

  • It can provide wealth

  • It can impress others

  • Friends are doing it

  • It offers an escape

  • It’s fun

Unfortunately, what seems like a lot of fun and excitement to a teen can lead to a lot of heartache, especially for teens that aren’t really ready, developmentally, to be gambling. Teens are at greater risk of gambling problems because they:

  • Have poor impulse control

  • Are risk takers

  • Lack sound judgment

  • Live in the moment

Denial is a common symptom amongst problem and pathological gamblers, and so it is often left to those that care about the gambler to identify the problem. Some of the warning signs of a teen with a gambling problem include:9

  • School problems – Sudden poor performance or truancy

  • A sudden change in personality which leads to family conflicts

  • A constant need for money – selling personal or family belongings

  • Stealing or committing other illegal acts to get money to gamble

  • Having unusually large amounts of money

  • Showing off winnings or what was bought with winnings

  • Talking about gambling a lot, or having a preoccupation with gambling or poker

  • Knowing and using gambling lingo

  • Tiredness – from nights spent online gambling

  • Secretive computer behavior

Teen gambling can have serious consequences. Teens can get heavily in debt and may get involved in illegal activities to raise the money they need. Tragically, adolescents with gambling problems are also at a greatly increased risk of suicide.

Gambling Addiction Treatment

Although only a small percentage of those that could benefit from treatment will ever seek gambling help, treatment works and it can help you retake control over your life.

Getting professional gambling treatment can:

  • Teach you how to master urges to gamble

  • Help you handle temptation and deal with relapse

  • Help you make a plan to deal with debt and financial problems and if necessary, get you in contact with people that can help you get back on track financially

  • Put you in contact with help and support groups in your area

  • Help you deal with stress, anxiety and depression

  • Help you repair damaged family relationships

  • Help you to find more constructive and still enjoyable ways to pass your leisure time

Two commonly used techniques in gambling addiction treatment include motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Motivational Interviewing (MI)

MI is a technique that your therapist might use to help you stay focused on why you want to make changes in your life – to help you stay motivated to change. With MI, your therapist guides you (but does not dictate or direct your thoughts or observations) in looking honestly and objectively at your life and reasons for wanting change - and at your proven abilities to change when you decide you want to.

Most of us are better at making changes, when we’re motivated to do so, than we give ourselves credit for. MI helps us realize that we can and want to change!

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

A type of counseling known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered one of the most effective therapies for the treatment of problem gambling. Some of the advantages of CBT include:

  • It gives a person real-world tools to help control urges

  • It can be learned, practiced and put into action relatively quickly

CBT helps people control their behaviors (gambling) by learning to control their thought processes, specifically, by correcting ‘wrong’ thinking that leads to poor behaviors. A CBT therapist might help you to correct misguided notions you may have about your skills as a gambler, about control, odds and or superstitions.

Support Groups – Abstinence based 12 step support groups, like Gamblers Anonymous are available in most urban areas. These groups meet to offer support and fellowship to a community of gamblers in recovery. Participation is free.

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