For most people, the occasional game of chance is fun and harmless. The combination of risk and anticipated reward is sure to infuse you with a small rush of excitement, even when the odds are against you. Whether it’s playing poker with friends or betting on horse racing, many of us enjoy gambling as a social activity. However, excessive gambling can quickly transform from entertainment to dependence.
Gambling addiction – a spectrum of dependencies also known as pathological gambling, a gambling disorder, problem gambling, or compulsive gambling – is one of the world’s most common impulse-control disorders. Unlike casual gamblers, compulsive gamblers can’t control their urge to gamble, even if the negative consequences for them and their loved ones are apparent. Gambling addicts can’t stop playing even when the odds are against them. They can’t stop playing even when they absolutely can’t afford to lose.
Gambling addiction statistics from 2018 revealed that approximately 1.4 million adults living in the UK were problem gamblers. One of the industry’s most renowned regulators, the British Gambling Commission, cites a health survey showing a gambling addiction rate of 0.7%.
Who Is at Risk of Gambling Addiction?
Gambling is a term that encompasses a much broader range of activities than playing table games at a casino or placing wagers at your local sportsbook. Buying a lottery ticket or making a bet with a friend counts as gambling, too. Gambling addictions are as varied as the games of chance gamblers love.
While most people are able to enjoy the occasional game of chance without running the risk of becoming addicted, a certain number will quickly surrender to the dangers of gambling and become compulsive players without even realising it.
Have you ever felt you’re in such dire financial straits that you have no choice but to risk what little you have left in a last-ditch attempt to win a large sum of money? That’s how problem gamblers often feel. In the most serious cases, the gambler will put everything they have on the line – from maxing out their credit cards and taking out costly payday loans to putting their home down as collateral.
Although compulsive gamblers often promise themselves and others they’ll stop playing as soon as they break even, this getaway plan almost never works. Instead, it usually turns into a vicious circle in which gamblers can’t help but wager even after a big win. The pattern repeats until the addict is forced to admit to themselves and others they need professional help and treatment.
Another type of compulsive gambling occurs when a player makes risky bets just for the adrenaline rush or emotional high. The resulting addiction is just the same.
People from all walks of life can become victims of compulsive gambling. We’ve all heard gambling addiction stories about movie stars like Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon or record-breaking athletes like Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, and Tiger Woods. These and many other celebrities have all dealt with gambling disorders at some point in their careers.
We’ve established that any type of gambling can become problematic. However, certain forms of gambling have distinctive characteristics that can intensify the addiction and its consequences. For instance, recent studies reveal that fast gameplay is a significant risk factor. Games that have a short time between placing a bet and learning the result – such as slot machines – present a higher risk for addictive players.
Causes of Gambling Addiction
A long list of factors contributes to compulsive gambling as an impulse-control disorder. Problem gambling can be triggered by the drive to experience high levels of excitement, desperation for money, the entertaining but also intoxicating casino atmosphere, and the tempting social status of a successful gambler. No matter how it starts, once a betting or casino addiction develops, it’s difficult or impossible to recover without the services of a professional.
Someone with a severe gambling problem may feel desperate to earn back what’s been lost. Once a person finally wins, and even if it’s a huge win, it’s almost never enough to cover the losses. And if it is, the temptation to place just one more bet, and one more after that, is irresistible. Problem gamblers exhibit a pattern of behaviour that’s extremely difficult to break.
Sometimes, underlying healthcare problems can be the triggers for compulsive gambling. Such issues include but are not limited to anxiety, ADHD, and depression. These should be addressed by cognitive behavioural therapy or other relevant treatment alongside managing your gambling problem.
You may be surprised to hear that some medicines used to treat other health conditions, such as dopamine agonists for Parkinson’s disease, can also trigger compulsive behaviour, including compulsive gambling.
Sex also seems to play a part in whether or not someone becomes a problem gambler: Men are significantly more likely to gamble, especially online.
How Gambling Affects Your Body
From a medical point of view, wagering stimulates the brain’s reward system, much like drugs or alcohol. Experts associate problem gambling with a dopamine release of up to 10 times the normal amount. Continuous exposure to high levels of dopamine can cause the body to develop tolerance and inhibit the natural production of the hormone. That’s why, if you’re addicted to gambling, your body needs more and more of the stimulating activity to get to the same level of excitement. Problem gamblers can’t help placing higher bets and pursuing riskier ventures. It’s the only way to recapture the pleasure they once experienced.
Recent studies have shown that compulsive gamblers and drug users share certain genetic predispositions related to reward-seeking and impulsivity. No matter how determined they may be to quit, members of both groups deal with withdrawal symptoms when trying to step away, whether they’re fighting drug addiction or betting addiction.
Signs of Gambling Addiction
Often referred to as a hidden illness, a gambling disorder lacks the obvious symptoms associated with drug or alcohol addiction. While compulsive gamblers often minimise or completely deny the problem – even to themselves – there are a few symptoms that indicate something is wrong. The most distinctive sign of a gambling problem is the feeling that you can’t stop. If you’re always tempted to place just one more bet, or you get anxious when thinking about quitting, you are likely addicted to gambling.
Here are some of the most common symptoms that indicate a gambling disorder:
- Having an obsessive preoccupation with gambling
- Risking increasing amounts of money just to get the same thrill
- Unsuccessfully attempting to control, cut back, or stop gambling
- Have an unsettled feeling when unable to gamble
- Gambling to relieve feelings of helplessness or to escape problems
- Attempting to win back lost money by placing another bet
- Jeopardising important relationships or losing career opportunities
- Resorting to theft or fraud to get gambling money
- Feeling the need to be secretive about gambling
- Having family and friends worried about you
- Gambling even when you can’t afford to lose
The key difference between casual players and problem gamblers is the level of control they have over the activity. Unlike those who enjoy sports betting or poker nights with friends from time to time, gambling addicts are unable to set a limit or walk away even when they’re losing. In other words, what defines a gambling disorder is that problem gamblers become so absorbed in gambling activities that they pursue them compulsively and neglect or deny the negative consequences.
How To Cope With Compulsive Gambling
If you are dealing with a compulsive gambling disorder, the first thing you should know is that you aren’t alone – millions of people worldwide struggle with gambling issues. That’s precisely why so many online casinos and other gambling sites have tools for self-exclusion, links for quick access to Gamcare, or a phone number to another national gambling helpline.
First, you need to recognise that you have a problem. This can be a difficult step, but it’s necessary in order to get the help you need. It may be apparent in some cases, for example, if you’ve lost your job due to gambling or if it has caused problems with your family members.
Other times, gambling addiction is not so obvious. However, there are various assessment tools on the internet you can use for free. For example, on the NHS website, you’ll find a list of questions you can answer to determine whether your gambling is out of control.
Once you have admitted the problem to yourself and your family members, you should start working on a gambling addiction treatment plan. Typically, you’d start your journey toward a gambling-free living by getting the right diagnosis from either your primary care doctor or mental health professional. Prepare your medical documentation, a list of your symptoms, think about the situations in which you experienced an uncontrollable desire to gamble, and other information your doctor will need.
Your treatment plan may include individual therapy, group therapy, or medications. You’ll work with a team of professionals to create a plan that’s right for you. Self-help groups, such as Gamblers Anonymous, can also provide much-needed support for overcoming your gambling addiction. Gamblers Anonymous is a 12-step program modelled after Alcoholics Anonymous, where former problem gamblers provide assistance and counselling to guide a gambling addict through all the difficulties and keep them on the road to recovery.