Compulsive gambling is a type of behavioral addiction (also known as “process addictions”) where the individual has a pathological compulsion to wager. The addiction to gambling becomes destructive, but the gambler continues despite the negative consequences.
Gambling is common, with 86% of American adults taking part in the activity at some point in their lives and 52% reporting lottery gambling in the past year. The rate of gambling addiction worldwide varies between 0.12% and 5.8%, with North American rates being in the 2-5% range.
A recent large review of gambling studies found that the most frequent gambling activities are:
- Scratch cards
- Sports betting
- Gambling machines
Gambling addiction is not an accident: it is based on a psychological principle known as a Variable Ratio Reinforcement Schedule (VRRS), where mood-stimulating rewards are variable and unpredictable. The VRRS structure has long been recognized as a compulsion-inducing system.
There are signs that someone may have a gambling addiction that becomes evident in people who have become pathological gamblers. Here are ten warning signs to look out for.
1. You lie about your gambling habits
Lying to hide an addiction and its related behavior is a core symptom of addiction of any kind, and pathological gambling is no exception. The obsession and compulsion to gamble is so strong that the person will go to any lengths to place the next bet, and this usually includes lying to cover up where they are, what they are doing and what happened to their money.
Pathological gamblers even lie to themselves. There is a psychological process known as cognitive dissonance. When individuals who are behaving in a way that is not consistent with their values or beliefs about how they should behave, it creates psychological discomfort – cognitive dissonance. In order to reduce this psychological discomfort, the logical thing to do would be to stop the “bad” behavior – the gambling and associated behaviors. However, addiction is not a logical thing.
Someone with a gambling addiction will instead start lying to themselves, rationalizing their behaviors, even if the reasons they use are false or don’t make sense. This is a natural psychological process to reduce the psychological discomfort from the cognitive dissonance. In other words, problem gamblers lie to themselves.
A gambling addict is not fundamentally a liar, but the lying that accompanies a gambling addiction is part of the pathological psychology and behaviors of their addiction.
2. You gamble more than you can afford to lose
A casual gambler may spend some of their extra money on gambling activities. But when their losses are more than they’re willing to spend, they stop. Pathological gambling is characterized by the inability to control or stop gambling and their gambling will continue even after losing more money than the gambler can afford. These gambling losses can put the gambler into debt or risk assets like the gambler’s car or home.
And the losses go much deeper than simply being broke from gambling.
Gambling addiction often takes tremendous amounts of time, and as the gambler spends increasing amounts of time at it, other activities suffer. They neglect relationships, family and home responsibilities. They often miss work. They neglect meetings and other important obligations. Or, they may gamble while they are at work, or when they should be sleeping or interacting with their family. The results can be more than they can afford:
- Relationship stress: this is especially a problem when the spouse finds out about the monetary losses
- Job loss: Due to decreased performance or gambling at work
- Arrest and criminal charges: for illegal activities used to finance the gambling
- Physical health problems: lack of sleep or self-care
Despite the losses accumulated, the compulsive gambling continues until the addict is able to admit the problem and accept help.
3. Gambling negatively affects your emotions
Like other forms of process addiction, compulsive gambling is a dysfunctional coping mechanism, used to mask negative emotions and to distract and escape from life’s stressors and problems. Even if someone is using gambling to avoid their emotions, the negative effects of gambling include emotional side effects.
The gambling activity causes the production and release of the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals (neurotransmitters), which are part of the brain’s reward system. The result is that the gambling makes the person feel good for a little while, which provides relief from negative emotions. The gambling activities themselves may also provide a welcome distraction from thinking about problems.
When gambling addicts are not gambling, the reward system drops the feel-good chemicals back down to normal or even below normal to compensate for the unusually high levels that the gambling produced. As a result, gambling addicts can feel low, sluggish, unhappy and irritable when they are not gambling. Their emotions become dysregulated and dysfunctional.
4. You borrow money to pay for gambling
Borrowing money to gamble is a major part of the financial downfall that problem gamblers often face. They will use up normal ways of borrowing money, such as a line of credit, bank loan or second mortgage. After that, they could resort to ultra-high interest loans, such as credit cards, payday loans or even illicit loan sharks. They are so desperate to continue gambling that they will go to virtually any length to obtain more money, often under the belief that “this time” luck will find them and they will strike it rich.
5. You gamble until all your money is gone
The obsessive drive to gamble becomes so strong in pathological gamblers that even losing their money doesn’t cause them to stop the behavior. They can burn through their savings and even gamble their paychecks, rent money, grocery money and any other money that is available to them, regardless of the consequences. Going broke from gambling is a true risk for someone with a gambling addiction.
6. You attempt to recover losses by gambling more
This feature of gambling addiction is known as “chasing.” As their gambling losses continue to accumulate, compulsive gamblers maintain the belief that “one more bet” is all they need to win back everything. To them, the next bet is always the big one. This strategy is how they will recover from their prior gambling losses and start to get ahead.
In addition to the brain reward system that drives them to continue gambling, it is this delusional and obsessional belief that “the next bet will be the big winner” that makes compulsive gamblers go to any length to keep gambling.
7. You are obsessed with gambling
Pathological gambling is a disorder of obsession-compulsion and impulse control. The obsession with betting and the possibility of winning causes great anxiety that can only be relieved by the compulsion: gambling. Obsessive gambling becomes the cure.
The obsession to gamble causes pathological gamblers to ruminate about their previous gambling, and to think of little else than the next time they can place a bet. It is difficult for them to think of anything else, even when they need to concentrate on normal life activities. These obsessive thoughts become invasive and seemingly unstoppable.
8. You steal to fund your gambling habit
Once gambling addicts have used up their own money and all the available options for borrowing money, the compulsion to gamble may lead some to resort to crime in order to support their gambling. This may involve stealing from family and friends, but it sometimes leads to other criminal activities like robbery, fraud or embezzlement.
9. Your family and friends think you have a problem
Despite becoming experts at lying to cover up their gambling behaviors and financial losses, family and friends may eventually start to suspect that the gambling addict has a problem. When family and friends express concern, gambling addicts typically deny the problem. As the depth of the problem becomes apparent, family and friends may become more insistent and unable to understand why the gambler can’t “just stop.”
The continued concern is interpreted by pathological gamblers as “nagging,” and, as a result, they may push family and friends away. However, nothing pleases family and friends more than seeing a loved one with compulsive gambling accept help and recover.
10. You can’t stop
In the end, gambling addiction is defined by the inability to stop or even control the behavior. Individuals affected by gambling addiction can’t stop gambling. They usually try many times to cut back or stop, and may succeed for a little while, but they always go back. With the right help, pathological gamblers can recover. However, stopping compulsive gambling is not about having enough willpower. The key to successful recovery from this debilitating addiction lies in identifying and addressing the underlying issues that are causing the compulsive behavior.
If you or a loved one is addicted to gambling and struggling with other substances, The Recovery Village can help. We have the expertise and experience to comprehensively treat co-occurring substance and behavioral addictions. Contact us for a confidential assessment.
Calado F, Griffiths M. “Problem gambling worldwide: An update and systematic review of empirical research (2000-2015).” Journal of Behavioral Addictions, December 1, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2019. Clark L, Averbeck B, Payer D, Sescousse G, Winstanley CA, Xue G. “Pathological choice: The neuroscience of gambling and gambling addiction.” Journal of Neuroscience, November 6, 2013. Accessed May 31, 2019. Haw J. “Random-ratio schedules of reinforcement: The role of early wins and unreinforced trials.” Journal of Gambling Issues, June 2008. Accessed May 31, 2019. Jazaeri S, Habil M. “Reviewing two types of addiction – pathological gambling and substance use.” Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, Jan-Mar 2012. Accessed May 31, 2019. Perlovsky L. “A challenge to human evolution-cognitive dissonance.” Frontiers of Psychology, April 10, 2013. Accessed May 31, 2019. Cherry, Kendra. “Variable-Ratio Schedule Characteristics” Verywellmind. December 17, 2018. Accessed June 14, 2019.
Calado F, Griffiths M. “Problem gambling worldwide: An update and systematic review of empirical research (2000-2015).” Journal of Behavioral Addictions, December 1, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Clark L, Averbeck B, Payer D, Sescousse G, Winstanley CA, Xue G. “Pathological choice: The neuroscience of gambling and gambling addiction.” Journal of Neuroscience, November 6, 2013. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Haw J. “Random-ratio schedules of reinforcement: The role of early wins and unreinforced trials.” Journal of Gambling Issues, June 2008. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Jazaeri S, Habil M. “Reviewing two types of addiction – pathological gambling and substance use.” Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, Jan-Mar 2012. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Perlovsky L. “A challenge to human evolution-cognitive dissonance.” Frontiers of Psychology, April 10, 2013. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Cherry, Kendra. “Variable-Ratio Schedule Characteristics” Verywellmind. December 17, 2018. Accessed June 14, 2019.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.