How Gambling Addiction Begins
A Google search for “Addiction” turns up more than 1 billion results. The first page of the listings reveals mostly a few definitions and the names of rehab centers. That leaves a mix of scholarly articles, government resources, and blog posts about alcohol and drug abuse to fill out the rest of the search results, at least within the first five pages. None of these listings mentions gambling addiction at all. It’s something you need to search for specifically to find more information.
Although it isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one mentions addiction, a gambling disorder carries many of the same characteristics as a substance use disorder. It affects the same regions of the brain, and it can be just as destructive as drug or alcohol abuse. In fact, a gambling addiction is often a co-occurring condition with a substance use disorder and a range of other mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and anti-social personality disorders
It can be causative, leading you to misuse drugs or alcohol as your life spins out of control or the result of an increased likelihood of risky behavior while intoxicated. Many people with a family history or genetic predisposition for substance use disorders are also at risk for gambling addictions.
What Is a Gambling Addiction?
Like many forms of addictive behavior, gambling disorder has its roots in the human psyche. When you become preoccupied with betting or playing games of chance for some kind of reward, allow your gaming habit to negatively affect other areas of your life, and can’t seem to stop gambling despite negative consequences, you may have a gambling disorder.
Gambling affects the same pleasure and reward centers of the brain as substance use disorder, but it’s more closely associated with impulse control and reward-seeking tendencies. When you gamble, you derive pleasure from the thrill and promise of a reward.
Winning provides the payoff in more than just financial terms. But losing can contribute to the problem as the gambler risks everything to recoup previous losses or make that one “big score.”
Gambling addictions are considered something that mostly affects men, but recent reporting indicates that rates of women with gambling disorders have doubled over the past few years.
Unlike drugs and alcohol, you don’t need to leave home to get your gambling fix. Online gaming, video games, and ads for betting mainstays can be found everywhere. They’re on radio, TV, in publications, and all over the internet. Even something as benign as bingo can feed an addiction to gambling.
Gambling Addiction Facts and Stats
Most of the time, any mention of gambling addiction comes up when there’s a public vote on some gaming-related initiative like approving a lottery. It’s something families and gamblers keep under wraps until the problem can no longer be hidden or controlled.
Statistics from government agencies and mental health organizations tell the full extent of the issue:
• Although 1% of adults have some form of gambling addiction, rates among people between the ages of 14 and 21 are estimated to be as high as 9%.
• 75% of college students have gambled over the past year.
• 96.3% of those diagnosed with gambling disorder also meet the criteria for one or more psychiatric disorders.
• One-third of problem gamblers are able to recover on their own; the rest need behavioral therapy to help them quit.
• You’re 23 times more likely to develop a gambling addiction if you also abuse alcohol.
• 34% of people getting treatment for gambling disorder also exhibit symptoms of PTSD.
• More than half of all persons with a gambling disorder commit crimes to fund their activity.
Risk Factors for Developing a Gambling Addiction
Although there are no known, specific causes for developing gambling disorder, there are sets of characteristics and risk factors that make you more prone to gambling addiction. These factors are believed to include a combination of genetics, environmental influences, and life circumstances. For example, being in a social or family environment where gambling and gaming are seen as harmless fun puts you at risk. The desperation that results from financial problems can also transition into gambling addiction in an effort to relieve stress and anxiety.
Stress and Gambling
Gambling can begin as a way to cope with stress or boredom. After all, much of it is associated with gaming or sports, which are fun ways to pass time and relieve stress. When you add in the prospect of monetary gain or prestige, you’re also triggering the reward mechanism in the brain. This leads to a cycle of pleasure and reward-seeking behavior that can be compounded by impulsivity.
One study was able to link an increased frequency of gambling to experiencing a traumatic or stressful life event within the previous year.
Loneliness, Boredom, and Gambling
We are becoming increasingly isolated as a society. The rise of remote work, social media dependency, and social upheaval contribute to feelings of loneliness and social disconnection. More and more people are coping with this by turning to online gaming and the communities surrounding the activity in order to connect with others.
How Technology Contributes to Gambling Addiction
The rise of online gaming and mobile apps also feed gambling addiction, and the rewards don’t need to be financial in order for the activity to affect you financially.
Consider the way that mobile games are developed and presented. You’re encouraged to enter tournaments and receive boosts and awards for high scores and other accomplishments, which trigger reward-seeking behavior.
However, you’re also exposed to in-app ads and purchases that encourage you to invest more time and money in order to win. The proliferation of online casinos, poker rooms, and betting platforms that tease with promises of real cash rewards rather than points or digital currency further incentivize gambling. The more you spend, the greater your access to more rewards and potentially lucrative games or tournaments. All of the above factors increase your risk of gambling disorder, especially when you have other risk factors like:
• Mental health conditions, whether diagnosed or not
• Age: Gambling addiction risk tends to be higher with youth or age and isolation. The younger you start, the more likely you are to develop a gambling disorder. Seniors who live alone or far from family often turn to gaming for comfort.
• Gender: Men tend to be at higher risk of a gambling disorder, but women are closing the gap.
• Peer pressure and family influence: If you’re around people who gamble, you’re more likely to join them.
• Certain medications: One unusual side-effect of taking certain dopamine agonists is an increase in compulsive behavior, including gambling.
• Personality traits: People with impulse control issues, workaholics, and those who are overconfident or highly competitive also have a higher risk of developing a gambling disorder.
• Poverty or financial problems: Financial pressures are a huge risk factor for developing a gambling addiction.
Types of Gambling Disorder
There are almost as many types of gambling disorders as there are games of chance to support them. Not all gambling addicts are sitting in front of a slot machine or at a poker table.
It can take the form of someone who needs money badly because of their life circumstances. They may win initially, leading them to keep taking risks in order to increase their winnings. However, losing can also accelerate the compulsion in an effort to recoup their money. This is a behavior known as “chasing losses.”
Casual betting or gaming can transition to addiction when people become dependent on the emotional high that they get from gambling. Then, there are people who turn almost every interaction or activity into a game of chance. They make bets with friends and strangers alike, turning everything into a competition.
Signs of an Emerging Gambling Addiction
Many of the signs of gambling disorder are the same as those of other addictive behaviors. The first and most prominent sign is when you can’t stop gambling. You’ll go to extreme lengths to get money for lottery tickets or betting, even if it means maxing out your credit cards, borrowing money, or stealing.
You might also:
• Lie or try to hide your gambling activities
• Gamble even when you can’t afford it
• Feel guilt or anxiety over your gambling activity
• Notice family and friends growing concerned about your gambling habits
Like other disorders, the effects can be emotional and physical, and there are long-term consequences to the behavior.
The Emotional Effects of Gambling Disorder
Gambling disorders are often triggered by emotional factors like stress, anxiety, and boredom, but they also create these conditions when the activity becomes a problem. The vicious cycle of betting and losing, in addition to the social and financial problems that result, also contributes to depression, feelings of hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts.
Gambling Disorder and Your Health
Emotional problems can lead to physical problems like lowered immune response, sleep disturbances, and weight loss or gain. If you add substance abuse to the mix, you’re also increasing the likelihood of conditions, ranging from heart disease to hair loss and acne.
Long-Term Effects of Gambling Addiction
Unless the problem is severe or the losses are great, there may be no short-term effects of a gambling disorder. However, continued excessive gambling carries many long-term consequences. These can include:
• Mental and physical health problems
• Substance abuse
• Financial problems
• Relationship problems
• Job loss
• Broken trust
• Legal problems
• Criminal behavior
How to Conquer an Addiction to Gambling
Although there is no direct cause of gambling disorder, those who have a predisposition or risk factors should be careful and should be aware that a harmless bet or mild scratch ticket habit can develop into a larger problem.
If you believe you or someone close to you has a gambling addiction, there is some good news: You can conquer it and learn to make better choices no matter the scope or severity of the problem.
Recognize That the Problem Exists
The first step to overcoming any problem behavior is to overcome denial. Family and friends can express their concerns, but sustainable, long-term recovery is only possible when you admit that there’s a problem and take steps to address it.
Remove Yourself From Temptation
You may need to avoid places and people that contribute to your gambling disorder. That might mean altering your lifestyle and habits, cutting toxic people out of your life, and finding healthier activities to relieve stress.
Join a Support Group
Group therapy and 12-step programs like Gamblers Anonymous are very helpful for overcoming addictions. Not only do you get access to peer support from people who understand your struggle, but you’ll also gain education and positive reinforcement.
Avoid Gambling Triggers
One of the best side-effects of therapy, both group and individual, is the self-awareness you develop. By understanding the nature and causes of disordered behavior, you’ll learn to identify the things that trigger a relapse.
Seek Professional Help
Although one-third of those with a gambling disorder are able to overcome it on their own, many need professional help to conquer the problem. Medications for treating depression and anxiety have shown promise for managing gambling disorders.
Many people also experience positive outcomes through therapy. Professional counseling and cognitive-behavior therapy can be used to address the root causes of addiction, diagnose underlying mental health conditions, and provide new tools to cope with gambling disorders and related problems.
Getting Help for a Gambling Addiction
No matter your gambling platform of choice, the deck is stacked against you even before addiction develops. If you or a loved one is struggling with a gambling disorder, help is available.
Many of the same treatments, medications, and techniques that help people overcome substance use disorder and manage mental health conditions are also effective for treating gambling addiction.
Talk to your doctor about your concerns or contact your local public mental health services organization to find recovery assistance near you.