Understanding Gambling Addiction

Updated on April 10, 2018
Lesa Densmore profile image

Certified addiction advocate, coach and consultant, Lesa uses lived experience and education to promote addiction awareness and prevention.

Gambling Addiction Is on the Rise Internationally
Gambling Addiction Is on the Rise Internationally

Understanding Problem Gambling and Gambling Addiction

Gambling addiction, like other addictions, was once thought of as a moral weakness or problem. However, today, like drugs and alcohol, gambling is clinically recognized as addictive, and gambling addiction is recognized as a progressive illness.

Problem gambling is on the rise and impacts teens through the elderly of every ethnic background and gender. Although progressive, this illness is preventable and will respond to properly designed treatment. Work is being done in the areas of awareness and education, however; with gambling creating huge revenue, there is a gap between what we know and what we do about it. Because of this, the messages being sent are often not strong enough to make the needed impact.

Understanding a key dynamic to addiction is also crucial to understand gambling addiction. People often wonder, "How is gambling addicting if it isn't a substance"? Simply put, people don't get an addiction to things, they get addicted to what those things do for them. Gambling, sex, food, drugs, alcohol, exercise, and work, are activities or substances recognized as addicting. The effects of these activities are what people become addicted to, not the activity or substance itself. In other words, the activity or substance is the vehicle the person must drive to get there.

For those who become addicted or develop problems with gambling, it is because the effects of gambling (escape, rush, high, pleasure, reward, and risk) satisfy an underlying need. Like with drugs or alcohol, people in the troughs of compulsive gambling initially like the way it makes them feel, so they return over and over again. Unaware that continuous use of gambling, like drugs or alcohol, can cause the brain to depend on it to feel "normal", and obsessive gambling can become a destructive addiction outside of one's awareness. The effects of gambling are "narcotic-like" for many, and brain scan research has shown that gambling can stimulate the same areas of the brain as drugs and alcohol.

A Life of Uncertainty

Problem Gambling Causes Emotional and Financial Distress
Problem Gambling Causes Emotional and Financial Distress

The Gambling Addiction Concept

For many who gamble, it is an innocent form of entertainment posing no danger or problems, however; the opposite holds true as well. Anyone who chooses to gamble puts themselves at risk for developing problems with it. With the availability to gamble on the rise, the use of media to glamorize it, the mass marketing that entices people to gamble, the need for more revenue, and a lack of awareness to the dangers it can create, there is an intense rise in problem gambling and gambling addiction.

Gambling addiction is progressive and does not occur with the initial wagering of money. There are five recognized phases that, in order of progression, include:

  1. Winning Phase
  2. Losing Phase
  3. Rationalization Phase
  4. Desperation Phase
  5. Hopelessness Phase.

Clinically recognized, if problem gambling turns to gambling addiction and goes untreated, it will progress to the final phase resulting in prison or suicide.

With work being done in the area of problem gambling awareness, and a rise in the numbers of those impacted, society is beginning to understand the “problem dynamic” to gambling. However, more work needs to be done. Misconceptions still remain and they plague effective recognition of the illness.

Gambling Addiction Often Works Outside of One's Awareness

Gambling addiction is often described as a “silent killer." Because of the insidious side effects, those caught in the addiction often remain silent and are the last to accept the addiction concept. Additionally, those close to the gambler are slow in identifying the addiction as an illness because they are directly impacted, in pain, confused, and emotionally involved in the process as well.

An addiction to gambling does not always readily stand out. The signs of gambling addiction are often overlooked as something else such as a desire to play games, an urge to win money, or anything but a compulsive disorder that is out of control. Often times, the desire to gamble is so strong and the addiction is so serious that severe personal and social consequences, even death, can result.

A study undertaken in Hong Kong found that of the 233 gambling suicides in the city over the course of a year, 110 of the victims had significant debts related to their problem. The majority of these were male, middle-aged, married and employed. Few showed evidence of prior psychiatric problems. They appeared normal in every way except that they had gambled their way into a bottomless pit, became hopeless and considered suicide as the only way out.

As gambling addiction progresses, regardless of consequences or intellect, the gambler will continue to do what is necessary to gamble. Financial and emotional consequences increase for both the gambler and everyone involved. Formerly law-abiding, honest hard working individuals often turn to crime to support their addiction. One may commit forgery or fraud, embezzle, write bad checks, and steal continuously. The progression of this addiction leads to severe indebtedness and often financial ruin. Many individuals lose their jobs, homes, assets, relationships etc., and work or school performance is jeopardized. Those close to the gambler live a life of pain, anger, and financial uncertainty. Day-to-day lives are chaotic with dangerous emotional strain. As the addiction progresses the gambler lives in a world of distress, depression, and guilt. In complete despair with shame and disappointment, the gambler escapes deeper into the addiction and the gambling intensifies. Hopeless now, the cycle turns life-threatening as serious negative consequences continue to build and control is completely lost. With no hope of escaping the destruction the gambler often considers suicide as the only answer.

When Gambling Is no Longer Fun

Those Addicted to Gambling No Longer Enjoy the Experience
Those Addicted to Gambling No Longer Enjoy the Experience

Addiction Components

Salience Salience is when gambling become the single most important thing in life. This does not mean that an individual does not work, maintain a family etc., but rather life evolves around ones gambling activity, and the gambler prioritizes their gambling activity around other responsibilities that should come first. With salience, the gambler often strategizes and manipulates their schedule and time to accommodate their gambling needs, and thoughts of gambling are more prevalent than thoughts on responsibilities one should be adhering to.

Mood Modification/Swings When a gamblers mood is altered (good or bad) because of gambling activity, or lack of. With gambling addiction, the gambler will experience significant mood swings related directly to gambling activity. The gambler often displays a more pleasant mood with anticipation of gambling, or knowing activity is certain to occur. An irritated or a short-tempered mood is shown when the gambler is unable to get their fix, or during periods of loss or abstinence.

Tolerance When a gambler develops tolerance, more time and money are invested for the gambling to provide the desired effect. Similar to chemical dependency, a gambler will develop a tolerance to the dose. Someone addicted to gambling, or rather the effects of, will not be able to set limits. As the addiction progresses, tolerance increases and the gambler finds themselves in a vicious cycle of placing higher wagers, and spending more time and money on gambling activity.

Conflict The gambler develops intense conflict within oneself, and with those he or she is close to because of gambling activity. Arguments with loved ones and relationship conflicts are prevalent. Conflicts with work, school, and other responsibilities are also present.

Withdrawal When the gambler is unable to get their fix, they will experience symptoms of withdrawal. Anxiety and flu-like symptoms can present themselves, with tightening of the chest and stomach discomfort common. Signs of depression and dissatisfaction with life also flare as a symptom. During abstinence, as a means of replacing the lost altered effect, drinking or drugging may increase.

Relapse Like drugs and alcohol, repeated attempts to stop or cut back are unsuccessful, and one returns to destructive use. Relapses with gambling often result in intensified, more destructive cycles and binges.

These six components listed can help determine addiction. If these components are simultaneously present due to gambling activity, it is safe to indicate that the situation has shifted from problem gambling to gambling addiction, and help should be considered immediately.

Misconceptions Plague Effective Recognition

Gambling Addiction is Not a Money Problem
Gambling Addiction is Not a Money Problem

Gambling Addiction Misconceptions: The Core of Understanding

One of the largest misconceptions that demands understanding is that problem gambling is a money problem, or that people who are dealing with a gambling addiction are financially irresponsible. Society sometimes struggles with understanding "how" people get addicted to gambling, and "what" is it about gambling that people get addicted to.

Money is necessary for a gambler to get their fix. As with drugs and alcohol money is used to participate in a mind or mood altering activity. Most addicted to drugs and alcohol find themselves in financial hardships as well. It must be understood that addiction would simply not exist if the act of doing something or ingesting something didn't give a person a reason to return again and again with no regard to themselves, loved ones, or society. In other words, people do not get addicted to things, but rather to what those things do for them. This is clearly powerful or we would not have an epidemic of addiction in our world, and gambling addiction would not be rapidly rising.

Gambling has effects that are narcotic like for some people. Gambling like drugs and alcohol provides escape, reward, pleasure, action, a high, and risk. Addiction is addiction, and regardless of what it is to, addiction is a symptom to a much larger underlying issue. For some people the effects of gambling, like the effects of food, alcohol, drugs, sex, exercise, and work satisfies an underlying need. It is recognized that such activities are often abused as a means of coping or avoiding dealing with bad feelings and thoughts.

Gambling initially provides comfort for some, an out or action for others. Those impacted have their unique experiences that keep them coming back. Although some activities create a physical dependency, they all create an emotional dependency for anyone who becomes addicted. For example, if drugs and alcohol did not create a physical/mental dependency, but still provided the same effects, people would still be as addicted. In other words, an individual does not become physically addicted to alcohol after their first experience with it, just as an individual does not become physically addicted to gambling after their first experience with it.

In my coaching practice I like to say that addiction is an emotional illness with mental consequences. People start abusing gambling because they like the way it makes them feel (the heart), and continue abusing gambling even when it doesn't feel good anymore (the brain), all control is lost. Yes there are many factors related to why people become addicted, but the emotional illness dynamic cannot be overlooked as people become emotionally addicted to their vice well before the physical self or brain is addicted. Understanding this provides one angle that explains how addiction to something non-substance like gambling can happen.

When Gambling Becomes a Problem

Understanding the Signs of Gambling Addiction can Promote Prevention
Understanding the Signs of Gambling Addiction can Promote Prevention

Adult Warning Signs

  • Are you or a loved one haunted by bill collectors?
  • Do you or a loved one gamble to escape worry, boredom or trouble?
  • Do thoughts of gambling disrupt your sleep?
  • Do you or a loved one ever gamble longer than originally planned?
  • Do arguments, disappointments or frustrations cause you or a loved one to gamble?
  • Do you or a loved one celebrate good times with gambling?
  • Have you ever had self-destructive thoughts because of problems resulting from gambling?
  • Have you or a loved one lost time from work or school due to gambling?
  • Do you hide the rent/mortgage or food money because your spouse, partner or other family member gambles it away?
  • Do you or a loved one borrow money to finance gambling or to pay back gambling debts?
  • Does your spouse, partner or other loved one promise faithfully that she or he will stop gambling, yet continues to gamble?
  • Have you noticed a personality change in a loved one as his or her gambling has progressed?
  • Is your spouse, partner, or other loved one away from home or unavailable to the family over long periods of time due to gambling?

Adolescent Warning Signs

Adolescent warning signs may be different than those experienced by adults. Is your child exhibiting any of the following?

  • Unexplained absences from school or classes
  • Sudden drop in grades or failure to complete assignments on time
  • Change of personality or behavior
  • Exaggerated display of money or other material possessions
  • Daily or weekly card games
  • Bragging about winning at gambling
  • Intense interest in gambling conversations
  • Unusual interest in internet/newspapers/magazines/periodicals/sports scores
  • Unaccountable explanation for new items of value in possession
  • Borrowing or stealing money
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Uncharacteristically forgetting appointments or dates
  • Exaggerated use of the word “bet” in vocabulary and/or use of gambling language in conversations (e.g. bookie, point spread, underdog, favorite)

Employee Warning Signs

Gambling problems can impact the workplace, causing distress for the individual employee as well as peers.

  • Does the employee spend excessive time away from the job? (NOTE: Excessive time away from the job may include extended use of telephone to place bets or check results; reviewing form sheets, racing, sports or the stock pages in the newspaper/internet when pretending to work; participating in cards, lottery and/or office pools often, etc.)
  • Does the employee take unusual amounts of sick time, especially half-days? (NOTE: The compulsive gambler frequently takes excessive time and often suffers from depression, hypertension, ulcers and other health problems. They also uses sick time to gamble.)
  • Does the employee routinely arrive late, leave early, take long lunches or experience difficulties reporting and/or remaining in scheduled work location(s)?
  • Does the employee talk or worry about money problems, or experience money difficulties resulting in requests for cash advances or loans (i.e. borrowing) from fellow employees and/or employer?
  • Does the employee always seem to be the person who starts and/or runs the office pools (e.g. sports, lottery, birth)?
  • Does the employee encourage coworkers to bet in office pools and/or bet more money?
  • Does the employee try to organize an office excursion to a casino or racetrack?
  • Does the employee have a history of writing bad checks?
  • Does the employee have more than one mailing address?
  • Does the employee’s use of company money seem suspicious or inappropriate?

Gambling Addiction Requires Immediate Attention

One Should Seek Help as Soon as Signs of a Gambling Problem are Present
One Should Seek Help as Soon as Signs of a Gambling Problem are Present

Need Help?

Gambling addiction has the highest suicide rate among all addictions. A Council on Problem Gambling is operated in most states, and there are a growing number of treatment options and help resources throughout the country. All state councils have a website and provide an online Problem Gambling Assessment Tool for personal use. This assessment tools can anonymously help a person determine where they stand with their own gambling behavior, and how to get help if they choose.

If you or someone you care about has a gambling problem, you should consider talking with a professional. Confidential help is available on-line, as well as National Resources and support services.

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© 2014 Lesa Densmore

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