By Edmund Murphy

Last updated: 26 May 2023 & medically reviewed by Hailey Shafir

Gambling addiction is currently the only form of behavioral addiction recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. As outlined in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), gambling addiction can be diagnosed using the 11 criteria for measuring substance addiction, but what is it?

Gambling Addiction

What is gambling addiction?

Gambling is a diverse activity that is not designated solely to casinos and card games. Many forms of gambling occur in day-to-day life, including buying lottery tickets, poker games, online gambling, legalized gambling, or placing bets on sports games. For many, these activities are casual and infrequent and don’t threaten their financial security. However, for others, gambling is a much more frequent and problematic behavior that causes them to lose control and experience devastating financial losses. 

Like many forms of substance abuse, gambling activates the reward center in the brain and causes the release of dopamine. Pathological gamblers will feel a rush when placing a bet, and may even have a bigger rush when placing large or risky bets. People with a gambling disorder become fixated, building their routine around either chasing the high from winning with increasingly risky bets or desperately trying to recoup their losses. It can be a devastating cycle, one which leaves many in financial ruin and emotional turmoil every year. [1][2]

What causes gambling addiction?

Genetics, psychological make-up, a person’s environment, and past trauma can all make a person more vulnerable to addictions, including gambling disorders. Outside of the recognized causes of addiction, someone may also become a compulsive gambler if they are in difficult financial circumstances as a means of getting out of them. Others may develop an addiction after experiencing the rush of a lucky bet or winning streak. Others may simply enjoy the perceived lifestyle of gambling and may not be aware of how it is damaging their lives.

Gambling addiction vs. compulsion

Compulsive disorders and addictive disorders are closely linked but are categorized differently in the DSM 5 (the reference guide used to diagnose all mental illnesses and addictive disorders). The main difference between these disorders is that compulsions are impulsive patterns of behavior that cause negative consequences and problems but don’t necessarily cause the person to become physically or psychologically addicted.[1][2]

Addictive disorders like gambling disorder are known to cause the formation of addiction pathways in the brain which make it hard (but not impossible) for a person to control, cut back, or stop the behavior. Compulsive behaviors may be driven by fear, distress, or other impulses, as is the case in people with OCD who compulsively wash their hands or check their locks. They aren’t addicted to these behaviors but instead do them compulsively to alleviate their anxiety.

Warning signs & symptoms of gambling addiction

Gambling disorder is characterized by a pattern of compulsive gambling that becomes problematic and leads to the experience of negative consequences in an individual’s life. Symptoms of gambling disorder include the experience of at least four of the following: [2]

  • A need to gamble with increasing amounts of money to achieve the same level of excitement or “rush”

  • Repeated unsuccessful efforts to stop or cut back on gambling

  • Restlessness or irritability when trying to cut back or stop gambling

  • Persistent preoccupation, or having frequent thoughts about gambling

  • A pattern of gambling when emotional or under stress

  • Returning to gambling after losing to “recover losses”

  • Lying to others or minimizing the extent of the gambling behavior

  • Risking or experiencing the loss of a significant relationship, job, or opportunity because of gambling

  • Relying on others to provide money to relieve the financial strain caused by gambling

Some additional signs that can indicate someone has a gambling disorder or is at risk for developing one include:[2]

  • Spending more time or money gambling than you originally intended

  • Feelings of regret, remorse, or guilt after gambling

  • Gambling money that you cannot afford to lose

  • Intending, planning, or attempting to stop gambling but not following through

  • Feeling unable to control yourself when you start gambling

If you notice these signs or symptoms, it may mean that you are struggling with a gambling disorder, or that you are at risk of developing one.

Some who fall into patterns of excessive gambling may begin to display mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. This coupled with heavy losses can drive some to suicidal thoughts and actions.

One of the biggest indicators that addiction has formed is the inability to stop. If the thought of quitting gambling makes you anxious or you take active steps to carry on gambling, regardless of whether you are hurting yourself or others, then you likely have an addiction

Effects of gambling addiction

  • Damaged relationships and trust

  • Unpaid debts that threaten financial, job, or personal security

  • Financial difficulties including debt or bankruptcy

  • Neglecting work and other responsibilities 

  • Secretive behavior attempting to hide or conceal the problem

  • Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression or mood swings

  • Abusing substances to cope with psychological pressure from gambling, leads to drug and alcohol addictions

Reducing gambling activity

If you feel that you may be starting to develop a problem with gambling or have lost control, consider taking one or more of the following actions:[4]

  • Admit the scope of the problem and face it directly by calculating your losses and debts, and considering the amount of time and money spent on gambling

  • Recognize the negative effects gambling has had on you, loved ones, your life, and financial security

  • Find someone to talk to about the problem. Sharing your concerns with a loved one, therapist, or support group can help explore your feelings about the issue

  • Avoid locations and situations where you may be tempted to gamble and put safeguards in place that make it harder to give in to urges to gamble (i.e. leaving cash or credit cards at home or deleting apps used to gamble)

Visit our 12 tips to stop gambling page for more advice on how to reduce gambling.

Can a gambling addiction be treated with medication?

Behavioral problems such as gambling addictions cannot be directly treated with medication, but medication may be needed to treat underlying or related conditions or symptoms like anxiety, mood swings, or depression. As there is no medication treatment for gambling addiction, many try to self-medicate. This can not only exacerbate any co-occurring conditions but also increases the risk of developing a secondary addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Helping a loved with struggling with a gambling disorder

As with all types of addiction, loving someone who has a problem can be very difficult. Gambling addiction can put a huge strain on any relationship, especially if you share finances or have lent money to the person with the addiction.

If you think your partner or loved one may have the signs of being a problem gambler but you are unsure, ask yourself:

  • Do they promise time and time again to stop gambling but carry on anyway?

  • Do they disappear for long periods of time without telling you where they were? 

  • Do they spend large sums of money without being able to account for it? 

  • Do you hide money to stop them from spending it? 

  • Do they lie to cover up or deny their gambling?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, here are some recommended steps to take:[4]

  • Have an open conversation with your loved one sharing your concerns

  • Set hard limits and boundaries about not lending them money

  • Limit access to shared accounts to protect financial assets

  • Encourage your loved one to get professional treatment

  • Consider a support group or counseling if you need additional help

Treatment for Gambling Addiction

If you or someone you care about is suffering from a gambling addiction, contact a treatment center today.

Gambling disorder is a treatable addiction, and many addiction centers have the ability to help people overcome this issue. Also, all states have free support and help (including counseling and support groups such as Gamblers Anonymous) for people struggling with gambling disorders. With treatment, it’s possible to overcome a gambling problem and regain control of your life and finances.