Compulsive gambling (also known as Gambling Disorder) is the urge to continue to gamble, even when it causes severe hardship or distress. It’s very similar to alcohol or drug addiction, as the addict loses the ability to control their impulses. If the addiction goes untreated, it can result in catastrophic economic consequences, not to mention depression, anxiety, etc.
There are many things that can indicate a gambling problem. Of course, the biggest indicator is how much time the individual spends gambling. But if you are still not sure if you have a problem, you may want to check this list.
Preoccupation with Gambling
If the individual is constantly talking about the games he or she likes to wager on, or how much money they won, or the odds of a particular game, this may be a sign of an addiction. This is especially true if the gambler initiates a dialogue with this topic when it is unwarranted. If the gambler is constantly trying to sell you on a particular game or to travel to a particular gambling venue, this is a warning sign. Similarly, if the individual is constantly planning trips to the casino, or basing their life around wagering, then they might have a problem.
Need for Increasing Amounts of Money
Sometimes, playing for the same stakes simply isn’t as thrilling anymore. If the gambler seems to want to play their favorite game for higher and higher stakes, they may be getting a rush from it. That rush might be their drug of choice.
Inability to Quit
If the individual has discovered that they need to stop gambling, and yet cannot stop despite trying, they may have a problem. Talk to them, find out what they are thinking. If they say they want to stop, ask why they haven’t. Hopefully, this leads to an admission that they cannot quit. That’s an important moment for anyone seeking help.
Defensiveness when Challenged
If the gambler has someone in their life that cares enough to ask them to quit, and yet becomes defensive at this suggestion, then they really may have a problem. The trouble with such an individual is that they may not yet be willing to admit that they have a problem. Be patient; help them to reason through it. Ask them what a gambling addict looks like; describe their characteristics. If the gambler sees his own behavior in such a description, then they might admit their need for help.
The human brain has a reward system built into it that tends to release dopamine and other pleasure-related hormones when we do something that it likes. Winning money often triggers these rewards, and if a person experiences this enough times, they can become addicted to the “high” they get when they win. This can make treatment especially challenging, as the addict doesn’t have to go anywhere to acquire the “drug” – it’s with the gambler everywhere he or she goes.
One key reason gambling addictions (and social media addictions well) are so difficult to overcome is a principle called “intermittent reinforcement”. Slot machines and other gambling mechanisms are designed with this principle in mind. You never know when the payoff will happen, and each time you pull the lever your brain gets “a dopamine rush”. The machine will intermittently give you small payouts, which captures your brain and holds it hostage waiting for the next big payoff. Even when you have lost all of your money, you still can’t walk away because “the next one could be the big one”.
There are several variables that can influence the probability of someone developing a gambling addiction. Here are a few:
The more of these factors an individual has, the more likely they are to develop a gambling problem.
To diagnose someone with a gambling addiction, it is best to have the gambler meet with a mental health professional with experience treating such individuals. The right professional will have the background necessary to provide an accurate diagnosis and offer appropriate remedies. There are several identifiers used in diagnosing a gambling addiction; if the individual has at least four of them, then they are considered an addict. Some of these were covered in the section above, but there are others.
Critically, any professional attempting to make a diagnosis can and should speak with the individual’s friends and family for their opinion. Said professionals should also take an inventory of any other mental illnesses/disorders that may play a role in the gambler’s mental effect.
Additionally, if the individual takes medication that affects his or her mood, or is used for the treatment of a mental condition, then that medication may play a role in the diagnosis.
There are a number of modalities used to treat gambling addiction in people. However, the most critical part of treatment is the first step – getting the addict to admit they have a problem. If they are willing to listen and invest energy in their own recovery, then these approaches can provide consistent relief.
Behavior therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are two examples of approaches that enable the gambler to make better choices. Behavior Therapy helps the individual to be more conscious of their physical state to identify when they are at risk and thereby choose a safe option. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps the individual to become conscious of his or her negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones and to see the connections between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Also, addiction impacts the lives of the gambler’s loved ones, so family therapy can also be useful for some to find healing in their family relationships.
Certain antidepressants or mood stabilizers are effective at treating the negative thoughts and feelings that accompany gambling addiction, as well as related mental conditions. Some even may reduce the desire to gamble for some people. Also, there is a class of medication known as narcotic antagonists that may be helpful in curbing the urge to gamble.
Attended through the supervision of one’s therapist, gambler support groups and 12-step programs enable the individual to find strength and support in the company of others with a similar problem. Other gamblers will have empathy for the addict and will be best suited to guide him or her on a path to recovery. Sometimes the most important thing in fighting an addiction is knowing that you’re not alone.
Jim Brillon is a licensed therapist with extensive knowledge and training in the area of compulsive gambling and other addictions. He has treated countless addicts in the Orange County area with this problem and knows exactly how to help. If you believe that you might be suffering from this difficult condition, or if you know someone who is, reach out to our office today.