Gambling Addiction: Signs, Causes, Risks, And Treatment Options

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D on July 5, 2021

Millions of people in the United States engage in some form of gambling activity. For some, this can become a compulsive and addictive habit. Overcoming an addiction to gambling is possible with treatment.

Gambling Addiction

Gambling disorder, also known as a gambling addiction, is a progressive condition that affects an estimated two million people in the United States.

While millions of people gamble without significant impairment to their lives, gambling addiction can have major financial costs, hurt relationships, and cause significant distress.

Gambling addiction, like drug or alcohol addiction, is treatable with the use of behavioral therapy, group therapy, and sometimes medication.

Learn more about behavioral addictions

What Is A Gambling Addiction?

Gambling addiction is a disorder characterized by a loss of control over one’s gambling activity, and subsequent consequences to one’s health, finances, relationships, and level of functioning.

Types of gambling addictions include:

  • land-based gambling addiction (e.g. gambling at casinos)
  • online/internet gambling
  • underage gambling (i.e. gambling under the age of 18)
  • sports betting

Clinical gambling issues used to be classified as a type of compulsion, or an irresistible urge to gamble.

In 2013, gambling was officially recognized as an addictive behavior through the inclusion of a gambling disorder diagnosis in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-V).

Signs Of Gambling Disorder

Gambling once, or even gambling regularly, does not constitute a gambling addiction. A gambling disorder is marked by significant impairment or distress related to gambling.

Signs and symptoms of a gambling disorder include:

  • constantly thinking about gambling or making plans to gamble
  • gambling in order to calm nerves or to cope with distress
  • gambling more often over time and increasing the stakes
  • continuing to gamble despite significant financial or personal costs
  • frequently missing school or work due to gambling
  • losing a job or significant relationship due to gambling
  • lying about the extent of one’s gambling activity
  • hiding one’s gambling activity from others
  • feeling very restless or irritable in any attempt to stop gambling
  • unsuccessful attempts to reduce or stop gambling

Gambling disorder can have significant costs, and not all may be financial. An addiction to gambling can affect one’s personal life, health, and become a risk factor for substance misuse.

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Who Does Gambling Disorder Affect?

No one is immune from developing a gambling addiction. However, it’s believed to be more common in men, teenagers, young adults, and older adults.

Risk factors for developing gambling disorder include:

  • veteran status
  • family history of gambling addiction
  • history of mental illness
  • history of trauma or neglect
  • lack of social support
  • competitive personality

Gambling addiction is something that develops over time. Similar to drugs or alcohol, you don’t develop a clinical addiction to gambling instantly.

For many, gambling can become a way to cope with anxiety, depression, or other sources of stress in a person’s life, in the absence of supportive coping strategies.

Causes Of Gambling Disorder

Gambling addiction may be traced back to a number of factors, including the effects of gambling on the brain.

Psychological Causes

Research shows that gambling can trigger a release of dopamine, a brain chemical that’s associated with the brain’s pleasure and reward system.

People who become addicted to gambling will often report feeling a sort of ‘high’ or buzz similar to the experience of drug use or drinking.

The release of dopamine in the brain, which can trigger this sensation of euphoria, can reinforce continuing gambling activity—therefore prompting a person to gamble more and more.

Hereditary And Environmental Causes

In addition to this, gambling addiction can also be influenced by hereditary factors, as well as a person’s environment and mental health history.

It’s common for people to use gambling as a way to avoid reality, calm the nerves, or to fill a space left behind by the loss of a relationship or a lack of social connections.

Co-Occurring Gambling Disorder And Substance Abuse

Drug and alcohol abuse is very common among people who have a gambling addiction. People with gambling addiction very often also have a drinking problem or develop one later in life.

Nicotine dependence and illicit drug use is also common among people addicted to gambling. This co-occurrence is believed to be tied to the many shared risk factors between substance use disorder and gambling disorder.

Having both a substance use disorder and gambling disorder may be referred to as a dual diagnosis, or having co-occurring disorders.

What Are The Consequences Of A Gambling Disorder?

An addiction to gambling isn’t harmless. Unfortunately, gambling disorder is highly associated with significant financial losses, interpersonal issues, and mental health problems.

Consequences of a gambling disorder might include:

  • poor work or academic performance
  • unemployment
  • using money for gambling over bills
  • social withdrawal
  • legal problems
  • thoughts of suicide
  • ruined relationships
  • domestic conflicts

Gambling addiction is a progressive condition that can become worse over time and become debilitating for some without professional intervention.

Treatment For Gambling Addiction

According to some estimates, more than 80 percent of people with a gambling addiction don’t seek treatment.

Trying to quit without treatment carries a higher risk for relapse and can lead to greater difficulties both for individuals and families down the road.

Overcoming a gambling addiction is a personal journey that may not look the same for everyone, particularly if the person seeking treatment has a co-occurring mental or substance use disorder.

Treatment for gambling addiction may involve:

  • cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • motivational interviewing
  • individual counseling
  • couples or family counseling
  • self-help groups
  • medication

People with co-occurring substance use and gambling addiction may need additional care. For this, an inpatient dual diagnosis program or residential treatment program may be recommended.

Within a substance abuse treatment program, people can receive treatment both for their substance misuse and their addiction to gambling—both of which are treated similarly.

Underage Gambling Addiction Treatment

Gambling addiction can sometimes develop in teenagers and young adults. Minors who develop gambling disorders may be recommended treatment in a teen rehab program.

Gambling disorder in teenagers will generally emphasize treatments that engage the entire family, to help set a teenager up for success in recovery and build a supportive home environment.

Treatment for teenagers with a gambling addiction may involve individual counseling, family counseling, and teen support groups.

Find Treatment For Gambling Addiction Today

If you or a loved one is struggling with a gambling addiction and co-occurring substance use problem, one of our addiction resource specialists may be able to help.

By calling our helpline, we can:

  • identify appropriate treatment options
  • verify your insurance
  • help you find the right treatment program for you

Gambling addiction doesn’t have to be a life sentence. Call our helpline today to find addiction treatment for yourself or a loved one with a gambling problem.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D on July 5, 2021
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