What is gambling addiction?

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Like many problems, gambling addiction (also known as pathological gambling, compulsive gambling or gambling disorder) may result from a combination of biological, genetic and environmental factors, and can affect people from all walks of life.

What starts as an occasional leisure-time activity, or a way to solve their problems by turning what little money they have into a larger sum… gambling can soon become an unhealthy obsession for some people. This is because of the large amount of Dopamine (a neurotransmitter that stimulates the reward centres in the brain and produces feelings of euphoria, motivation, and concentration) that is released whenever the gambler places and wins a bet. They will continue to gamble in the hope of a win, regardless of the consequences, and this almost always leads to a cycle in which they eventually lose all their money by trying to win back their losses.

Whether betting on sports, scratch cards, roulette, poker, slot machines or bingo, a gambling addiction can interfere with work, strain personal relationships and lead to financial ruin. It can even push people into a life of crime.

Who is at risk?

A gambling addiction is often associated with an impulsive, restless personality, prone to compulsive behaviour or mood disorders such as unmanaged Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. It could also be as a result of stress caused by problems at home or at work, bereavement, relationship problems, financial problems, or it could simply be as a result of social influence.

With the prevalence of online sports betting sites and casinos, more people are at risk of gambling addiction than ever before.

What are the signs that someone has a gambling addiction?

Unlike those addicted to drugs or alcohol, problem gamblers rarely display any obvious physical signs or symptoms, and will typically deny or minimize the condition… even to themselves.

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Signs to look out for include:

  • Secrecy: Lying about where they’re spending their time and money.

  • Debts: Unpaid utility and credit card bills. Bailiff visits and court judgements.

  • Money: Selling their belongings, or borrowing money from friends and family.

  • Excuses: Blaming others for their misfortune, acting out of character, and rationalising their behaviour.

  • Behaviour: The only time the person seems happy is when they gamble.

  • Appearance: Anxiety and depression caused by their addiction may result in weight gain or loss, sallow skin, lethargy, and short-temperedness.

Emotional symptoms of gambling addiction

A gambling addiction often causes a multitude of emotional symptoms, including anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. In extreme situations, these thoughts may lead a gambler to actually make an attempt to end their life. Losing everything to gambling is devastating and leaves many people feeling completely hopeless.

Many turn to drugs and alcohol to help them cope with the stress, and may struggle with multiple addictions, which further complicate their situation and exacerbate their recovery.

What can friends and family do to help?

If your loved one has a gambling problem, you will probably have spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince them to stop. They may have drained their bank account, sold possessions, and run up huge debts, putting themselves and their family at risk of poverty and homelessness. As much as you may want to, and as hard as it is seeing the effects, unfortunately, you cannot make someone stop gambling. However, you can encourage them to seek help, support them in their efforts, and take any talk of suicide seriously.

Tips for family members:

  • Start by helping yourself. You have a right to protect yourself emotionally and financially. Don’t blame yourself for the gambler’s problems or let his or her addiction dominate your life.

  • Don’t go it alone. Coping with a loved one’s gambling addiction can be overwhelming, or you might feel ashamed. Reaching out for support will make you realise that many families are struggling with the same problem.

  • Set boundaries in managing money. To ensure the gambler stays accountable and to prevent relapse, consider taking over the family finances. Review bank and credit card statements. However, this does not mean you are responsible for micromanaging the problem gambler’s impulses to gamble. Your first responsibilities are to ensure that your own finances and credit are not at risk.

  • Consider how you will handle requests for money. Problem gamblers often become very good at asking for money, either directly or indirectly. They may use pleading, manipulation, or even threats to get it. It takes practice to ensure you are not enabling your loved one’s gambling addiction.

  • Try not to preach, lecture, make threats or issue ultimatums.

  • Don’t cover up or deny the existence of the problem to yourself, your family, or others.

I think I may have a gambling addiction. What can I do?

There are plenty of things you can do to help overcome your addiction and regain control. The first step is to acknowledge that you have a problem. It takes tremendous strength and courage to own up to this, especially if you’ve lost a lot of money and/or alienated friends and family along the way.

The second step is to strengthen your support network. It’s tough to battle any addiction without support, so reach out to friends and family, and join a peer support group. Gamblers Anonymous, for example, is a twelve-step recovery programme based on the Alcoholics Anonymous formula. A key part of the programme is finding a sponsor; a former gambler who has experienced the difficulties you’re facing, who remains free from addiction and can provide you with invaluable guidance and support.

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Then think about when you gamble. Do you gamble when you’re lonely or bored, after a stressful day at work, or following an argument with your spouse? Gambling may be a way to self-soothe unpleasant emotions, socialise, or unwind. Maintaining recovery from gambling addiction depends a lot on finding alternative behaviours you can substitute for gambling. So think of other ways to relieve unpleasant feelings in a healthier way, either by giving you a rush of adrenaline (such as mountain biking or rock climbing), by socialising (you could try joining an education class or volunteering for a good cause), or by relaxing (using techniques such as yoga or art therapy).

Finally, seek help for underlying mood disorders. Anxiety. depression, stress or substance abuse can trigger gambling problems, and can be made worse by compulsive gambling. Even when gambling is no longer a part of your life, these problems will still remain, so it’s important to address them.

Take affirmative action:

  • Decide that you are no longer a gambler.

  • Close online betting accounts. Remove gambling apps and sites from your phone and computer. Tell gambling establishments you frequent that you have a gambling problem and ask them to restrict you from entering.

  • Find someone you can call for support when you need it.

  • Take up a healthy, fun, alternative activity.

  • Get professional mental health treatment.

  • Acknowledge relationship or career problems and seek counselling.

  • Contact a debt charity for financial advice and assistance.

Professional Treatment

Overcoming a gambling addiction is not going to be easy, and seeking professional treatment doesn’t mean that you’re weak in some way or can’t handle your problems. It’s important to remember that every gambler is unique, so you need a recovery programme tailored specifically to your needs and situation. Talk to your doctor or mental health professional about different treatment options, including in-patient rehabilitation programmes if you have a severe addiction and need round-the-clock support.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for gambling addiction focuses on changing unhealthy gambling behaviours and thoughts, such as rationalisations and false beliefs, and can provide you with the tools to fight gambling urges and resolve financial, work, and relationship problems that will last a lifetime.

Dealing with gambling cravings

Feeling the urge to gamble is normal, but as you build a strong support network, and make healthier choices, resisting cravings will become easier. When a gambling craving strikes:

  • Call a trusted friend, family member or sponsor.

  • Tell yourself you can gamble in an hour. Then, as you wait, the urge to gamble will become weak enough to resist.

  • Visualize what will happen if you give in to the urge to gamble. Think about how you’ll feel after all your money is gone and you’ve disappointed yourself and your family again.

  • Distract yourself with an alternative activity that you really enjoy, or practice a relaxation technique.

If you aren’t able to resist the gambling craving, don’t be too hard on yourself or use it as an excuse to give up. Overcoming a gambling addiction is a tough process. You may slip from time to time; the important thing is to learn from your mistakes and continue working towards recovery.

Thank you for reading this blog post. If you have any thoughts to share, or ideas for future posts, please do let me know. I would love to hear from you.

Thomas HallComment