How to Recognize If Someone You Know May Have a Gambling Addiction

Updated on August 11, 2017
Natalie Frank profile image

Natalie Frank, a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, publishes on multiple topics in health, behavioral science, and other fields.

Those with gambling problems may bet in a casino, online, or both. They may place wagers on their favorite sports teams, Texas Hold ‘em hands, the roll of the craps dice, or the spin of a roulette wheel. No matter what they play or where they play it, chronic gambling can destroy relationships, lead to job loss, and result in financial ruin. This affects not only the individual but their family members and friends, as well.

Some individuals progress to the point of crossing lines they never thought they would, such as stealing money from friends and family to bet with or pay off their gambling debts. When they run out of options, it is not unusual for friends or family to find themselves paying off debts either because they are legally responsible, or because they wish to save the person from embarrassment, incarceration, or financial ruin.

These negative consequences will often destroy the person's closest relationships—leaving them alone and isolated, a condition that further exacerbates their addiction as they seek companionship and excitement to escape their problems. Their judgment becomes impaired such that they don’t see that increasing their gambling behavior is not a rational coping strategy and will only lead to further devastation.

Despite the serious nature of the problem, there is hope. Today, gambling addiction is understood to be similar to substance-related addictions.

There are many treatment programs available, based on a strong, empirical foundation and proven by positive treatment outcomes. Treatment programs can help the person, as well as their family members and loved ones individuals, regain control of their lives, restore friendships and family bonds, and allow them to take care of their financial responsibilities and compensate others as appropriate.

As with all addictions, however, the first step is recognizing that a problem exists. Often, since the individual is under the spell of the addiction, it is up to people who care about the person to help make that happen.

Listen to a Real Life Story of a Recovering Compulsve Gambler

Understanding Gambling Addiction and Problem Gambling

When conceptualizing addictions most people think only of drugs and alcohol, yet the latest view of these disorders includes other addictions, called process or behavioral addictions. This type of addiction can create equal devastation in one’s life and the lives of loved ones as that which results from substance abuse and addiction. This new way of thinking about problem gambling reflects investigations demonstrating that there are numerous similarities between substance addictions and gambling addiction some of which include:

  • How they are expressed
  • Causal factors found within brain functions
  • Other disorders frequently co-occur with the addiction
  • Similar physiological reactions related to the disorders are similar
  • Similar treament methods that are effective for alleviating symptoms
  • The development of tolerance
  • The experience of withdrawal syndrome when the addictive habit is stopped

Recognition of these commonalities may help people with gambling disorder get the most appropriate treatment and services, and can help others better understand the challenges that individuals face in overcoming this disorder. Similar to substance abuse, while the first few times an individual gambles there doesn't seem to be a need to continue, once the addiction has taken hold, it is no longer a matter of simply choosing to stop. There are changes that occur in the individual’s brain, especially in relation to stimulation of the brains pleasure and reward centers that set up strong emotional withdrawal symptoms should the individual attempt to quit. Efforts to cut back or stop gambling may result in severe depression.

Gambling addiction results in the inability to gain control over the urge to gamble even when the individual is aware it is hurting them and their loved ones in multiple ways. Gambling becomes all the person can think about and it is the only activity they want to engage in. This extreme focus on the habit can result in the person losing their job, their friends, their financial resources and can lead to the inability to meet their daily responsibilities. Those with a gambling addiction continue to bet increasing amounts of money regardless of whether they are winning or losing, have the money to bet or not, or are euphoric or depressed. None of the factors which control our behaviors normally through feedback that something needs to be altered affects those with the urge to gamble. Even those who end up incarcerated find ways to gamble while behind bars.

Those who gamble regularly may still have a problem even if they’re not fully dependent on the behavior such that they’ve developed tolerance and the potential for withdrawal syndrome. They do not have to be completely out of control of the behavior for gambling to wreak havoc on their life and the lives of those around them. When gambling disrupts an individual’s life to the degree they aren’t functioning normally in day to day activities, they are neglecting responsibilities, and it is causing them or others distress, gambling is considered a problem.

If someone seems consumed by gambling, spends increasing amounts of time, effort and money engaging in the behavior, betting larger sums the more they lose to try to reclaim the deficit, or gambles despite severe consequences for themselves and others, they likely have a gambling addiction. There are also a number of other more specific signs that you can look for to determine if someone you love may be addicted to gambling.

Signs that Someone May Have a Gambling Problem or Addiction

It is often more difficulty to recognize the specific signs of a gambling addiction compared to a substance abuse addiction as with gambling problems the signs could be due to a number of causes, some of them legitimate. If you are aware of the most common warning signs of gambling addiction you can detect the problem earlier and seek out expert advice regarding the best course of action to take to increase the likelihood of recovery. These signs incorporate financial, scheduling and mood related indicators.

Financial Signs

  • Money disappearing from wallets, purses, accounts or other investments that don’t belong to the individual but to which they can gain access.
  • Valuable items missing from the homes of friends and relatives
  • Despite being employed the individual is suddenly always short of money when they weren’t previously
  • Constantly borrowing money from others but never seeming to be able to pay them back, while providing a variety of excuses as to why they can’t do so
  • Taking our numerous loans simultaneously
  • Hiding financial information, records or paystubs
  • Frequent inability to pay bills, disconnection warnings or service disruptions for failure to pay
  • Only limited food in the house and the items are not ingredient for meals but more snack-like requiring little to no preparation

Mood and Behavioral Signs

  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Poor work performance
  • Becoming nervous, agitated, irritable or frustrated for no perceptible reason
  • Mentioning feelings of hopelessness, helplessness over their own lives, depression, or suicidal thoughts though without relating them to anything specific (e.g. gambling problems)
  • Notable alterations in personality
  • Decreased sleep and appetite
  • Changes in sexual desire or performance
  • Controlling, manipulative, or threatening behavior aimed at obtaining money from others
  • Using falsehoods or charm to influence others behaviors and willingness to give them money or get them out of trouble

Scheduling-Related Signs

  • Increasing amounts of time spent gambling either at a physical casino or online
  • Hiding reasons for unexplained absenteeism
  • Tardiness for even important commitments
  • Frequently calling in sick or taking unplanned days off
  • Simple errands take an inexplicable amount of time (e.g. buying milk from a nearby store takes 3 hours)
  • Time set aside for simple tasks is unreasonable and the individual may return having not completed the task in question

Quiz: Are You a Compulsive Gambler?

Take this quiz for yourself or your loved one to determine if there might be a problem. Answer all 20 questions below.

1.Did you ever lose time from work or school due to gambling? Yes No

2.Has gambling ever made your home life unhappy? Yes No

3.Did gambling affect your reputation? Yes No

4.Have you ever felt remorse after gambling? Yes No

5.Did you ever gamble to get money with which to pay debts or otherwise solve financial difficulties? Yes No

6.Did gambling cause a decrease in your ambition or efficiency? Yes No

7.After losing did you feel you must return as soon as possible and win back your losses? Yes No

8.After a win did you have a strong urge to return and win more? Yes No

9.Did you often gamble until your last dollar was gone? Yes No

10.Did you ever borrow to finance your gambling? Yes No

11.Have you ever sold anything to finance gambling? Yes No

12.Were you reluctant to use "gambling money" for normal expenditures? Yes No

13.Did gambling make you careless of the welfare of yourself or your family? Yes No

14.Did you ever gamble longer than you had planned? Yes No

15.Have you ever gambled to escape worry, trouble, boredom, loneliness, grief or loss?

Yes No

16.Have you ever committed, or considered committing, an illegal act to finance gambling? Yes No

17.Did gambling cause you to have difficulty in sleeping? Yes No

18.Do arguments, disappointments or frustrations create within you an urge to gamble? Yes No

19.Did you ever have an urge to celebrate any good fortune by a few hours of gambling? Yes No

20.Have you ever considered self-destruction or suicide as a result of your gambling? Yes No

[Taken from Gamblers Anonymous]

Final Thoughts and Conclusions

It may seem like gambling is an activity people choose to engage in—and that they are just being irresponsible when the behavior begins to cause problems. However, problem gambling is a serious illness, just like other substance-abuse addictions. It is important to keep in mind that once the addictive process has been established, the individual likely has little control over their gambling.

In fact, it is likely that their gambling behavior has taken control of their life. It may seem impossible that the individual isn't aware that they are hurting others with their behavior. However, the same rule of addiction holds true for this fact as well: the individual may be aware of how their behavior is affecting others, and that they are even losing relationships due to their gambling, but they still find themselves unable to quit.

If you suspect that someone you know and love may be suffering from a gambling addiction, the first step you can take is to learn about this problem. For the moment, try to put aside the ways in which their behavior may have negatively impacted you. While you may feel hurt, abandoned, used, or manipulated, remember that this is an illness, and that standard 12-step programs include phases of restitution and making amends, which will occur later on. Strive to find a way to understand your loved one's perspective, and approach the problem from where they are, regardless of your own personal beliefs about their gambling problems.

When a person feels that those they care about are doing their best to suspend judgment and criticism—and are just trying to be with them in the moment as they explain what they are experiencing—this opens the channels of communication. Try to identify something you went through in your own life that you can relate to their problems. This will help you better empathize, and allow you to have some compassion for and understanding of their difficulties. They will feel a stronger sense of connection to you, and a stronger sense of trust in your relationship.

Helping your loved one feel understood will increase their willingness to discuss their problems openly and honestly. This will allow you to process the situation with them and create a plan of action collaboratively that meets their needs as well as those of others who are being regularly impacted by their addiction. Just like other serious addiction disorders, gambling addiction generally requires professional intervention to alleviate. Yet even when the individual is being treated with the most effective, empirically validated approach available, the most critical element determining the individual’s treatment outcome is the involvement of friends and family members throughout the recovery process.

Your support, understanding, acceptance, and commitment to remain involved may have a significant impact on your loved one's ability to beat their habit. Ultimately, it is the constant encouragement, reinforcement, and presence of supportive friends and family that will provide the necessary strength to fight off the addiction demons and attain a life filled with happiness, satisfaction, and community.

© 2017 Natalie Frank

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      Natalie Frank 11 months ago from Chicago, IL

      I think they are two different things but they can definitely overlap. I think borderlines would become addicted to gambling if it gained them wanted attention. Also if it made them feel part of a group and if they could manipulate the situation so to split groups that seem particularly close. Not to mention if someone they are attached to becomes involved in gambling. Female borderlines are famous for being attracted to men with antisocial personality disorder, and there is an obvious overlap between APD and gambling. Borderlines would drop gambling if it seemed to earn them negative attention they couldn't control or manipulate or if they couldn't draw someone they were attached to into the gambling world. So I don't know how much it is gambling per se as gambling is another activity which their personality difficulties would become apparent in. Of course, that applies to all of their activities and the desire to engage in any type of activity is controlled by their own ability to manipulate things and people according to their desire and satisfaction and avoid being abandoned by significant others they are attached to. It is also likely with gambling that at some point sooner or later they will do something that will cause a significant scene, e.g. cutting or burning themselves etc. that will get them barred from one or more public gambling establishments. Due to the absence of in person interaction which is what triggers and controls everything in their lives, Borderlines would not likely find online gambling particularly engaging. Thanks for the comment and let me know your thoughts on this.

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      John A. Jaksich 11 months ago

      Insightful article-- I am curious how deeply the symptoms of 'Borderline Personality Disorder' can be similar to 'gambling addiction?' Or-- do the symptoms of BPD just seem to mirror many of traits that gamblers seem to have? Both instances seem to lead to disastrous interpersonal relations...

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