What is Gambling Addiction?
We spoke with psychotherapist Lisa Bahar to learn more about gambling addiction and what help is available to those afflicted. According to Bahar, gambling addiction is considered a “gambling disorder” and the DSM-5 identifies it as a non-substance-related disorder.
The criteria have similar proponents to substance use disorders and personality disorders. “Once an addiction has met the standards to be included in the DSM-5, there is evidence to support that the addiction is progressive enough to be formally diagnosed, which indicates the individual needs (if willing) treatment and to sustain sobriety.”
Bahar explained that gambling disorders can be disguised in the early stages as seemingly harmless activities such as playing the lottery, video games, sports betting, and casino gambling lifestyles; and that these gambling behaviors are often accompanied by other disorders such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, and substance use.
The individual has persistent and recurrent problematic behaviors including lying to conceal the extent of the gambling, losing money and returning to “chase” the loss, has jeopardized relationships, and relies on others to relieve financial distress. “The symptoms and criteria are identified as mild, moderate to severe and those that feel they may have a problem, probably do. Gambling activates the part of the brain that makes it hard to stop on one’s own without professional help.”
What does Gambling do to Your Brain?
According to Bahar, “Gambling activates the part of the brain that makes it hard to stop on one’s own without professional help.” Not everybody will be afflicted in this way, however, those who are will feel a boost of dopamine in their body (up to 10 times more than a natural rewarding experience), caused by the stimulation of the brain’s reward system.
This ‘thrill’ is thought to spur on further compulsive behavior. However, over time, some people become conditioned to the increase of dopamine, leading them to chase the feeling the original dopamine hit gave them and struggling with severe impulse control.
Is Gambling Considered a Mental Illness?
If somebody gambles moderately, with no ill effect, it isn’t considered a mental illness. However, if somebody gambles compulsively, negatively impacting themselves and others, they’ve likely developed a gambling addiction, defined in psychiatry as a ‘hidden’ mental illness.
Gambling Addiction Symptoms
It can be hard to detect whether somebody has a gambling addiction because there are no physical symptoms, however, the most common signs to look for are:
- Obsession – this can include constantly talking about gambling or previous big wins and relentless gambling online or offline.
- Loss of control – can they stop once they’ve started? Are they unable to despite losing money
- Secrecy – hiding their gambling, lying about how often they gamble, and outright denial.
- Financial problems – no money to pay bills or essentials. Creeping credit card debt or borrowing from people.
- Dysfunctional lifestyle – struggling to function at work, unable to maintain relationships, not taking care of health, and social isolation.
- Emotional withdrawal symptoms – the dopamine dip can lead to irritability, anxiety, restlessness, sleeping and eating changes, and lack of sex drive.
- Gambling despite consequences – are they unable to fight the urges despite the other points listed here, such as financial problems?
- Illegal activity – committing fraud or stealing to get money to gamble indicates they’re in serious trouble.
- Guilt or remorse – expressing such feelings indicates they’re aware they have a gambling problem.
- Concerned family and friends – close ones have expressed concern for the person afflicted or for their security.
How do you Stop Gambling Addiction?
It takes a lot of courage to admit that you have a problem and seek help for it. Bahar offered some invaluable insight. "Support is essential, including Gamblers Anonymous meetings, a therapist that specializes in gambling disorders, and SAMHSA. If one feels the need to control addiction or behavior, the addiction or behavior is controlling you."
The following three suggestions are typical places to start if you want to stop gambling for good:
- Gamblers Anonymous - gambling step-based treatments are modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous. These group-support programs focus on healing addictions, creating financial health, and improving mental well-being.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) - a type of counseling with a trained therapist that works on changing the thought processes that make you vulnerable to problem gambling. CBT teaches you skills to strengthen your ability to deal with the stresses that might push you back into gambling.
- Medication – for some people, problem gambling can be controlled through medication. Depending upon the specific situation behind your problem gambling, medications for depression or obsessive-compulsive disorders can be very effective.