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Problem Gambling Affects More Than Your Wallet

What is problem gambling?


Problem gambling, or gambling addiction, is not just a financial problem. It is the uncontrollable urge to continue gambling regardless of the toll it takes on your life and includes all gambling behaviors that endanger, damage, or disrupt personal, family, or vocational pursuits. Gambling can stimulate your brain’s reward system just like drugs and alcohol can, leading to addiction. Problem gambling can directly trigger or worsen symptoms of depression, anxiety, and personality disorders.


Problem Gambling Disorder involves repeated problem gambling behavior. In order to be diagnosed with the disorder, a person has to meet at least four of the following criteria during the past year:

  • Need to gamble with increasing amounts to achieve the desired excitement.

  • Restless or irritable when trying to cut down or stop gambling.

  • Repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back on or stop gambling.

  • Frequent thoughts about gambling (such as reliving past gambling or planning future gambling).

  • Often gambling when feeling distressed.

  • After losing money gambling, often returning to get even. (This is referred to as "chasing" one's losses.)

  • Lying to hide gambling activity.

  • Risking or losing a close relationship, a job, or a school or job opportunity because of gambling.

  • Relying on others to help with money problems caused by gambling

Risk Factors

  • Having an early big win

  • Having easy access to preferred form of gambling

  • Holding mistaken beliefs about odds of winning

  • Having a recent loss or change, such as divorce, job loss, retirement, death of a loved one

  • Financial problems

  • A history of risk-taking or impulsive behavior

  • Depression and anxiety

  • Having a problem with alcohol or other drugs

  • A family history of problem gambling


Gambling and Co-Occurring Disorders


Problem Gambling is Associated With the Highest Suicide Rate of All Addictions. Research shows that many mental health disorders, including mood disorders, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance use disorders often co-occur with problem gambling.

  • 37% of those struggling with problem gambling have suicidal ideation.

  • 17% of problem gamblers attempt suicide

  • 49% of those with a pathological Gambling Disorder have suicidal ideations

  • 18% of those with a Gambling Disorder attempt suicide

These rates are significantly higher than the general United States population; 3.9% of the adult population have suicidal ideation and 0.6% attempt suicide each year.

Substance Use Disorders Often Co-Occur

Generally, having one addiction puts a person more at risk for developing other addictions. People who struggle with a gambling addiction may also struggle with alcohol or substance misuse problems. This may be because of the environment surrounding gambling. One study found that alcohol addiction is the most common co-occurring condition with a gambling addiction. This may be linked to the fact that casinos serve alcohol. In fact, 7.3% of the study’s participants who were diagnosed with a gambling addiction also had an alcohol use disorder.


Many gamblers use drugs and/or alcohol to celebrate a win or cope with a loss. The normalization of these behaviors and the availability of these substances can contribute to this. Those with a substance use disorder may also use gambling as a means to buy more drugs to support a drug habit. Stimulants like cocaine can also inflate a person’s confidence, making them believe that they cannot lose.


Stress and Anxiety

Gambling may feel like a way to relieve stress. However, gambling can actually cause more stress. This includes financial stress caused by losing money and relationship stress caused by the loss of trust from family and friends.

Gamblers may also channel their anxiety into the excitement of gambling or use it as a distraction from their anxiety. About 34% of people with problem gambling disorder also experience extreme anxiety in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder. People tend to hide the extent of their gambling from family and friends. The lying and sneaking around that this cause can increase a person’s anxiety

Depression

The idea of winning money may sound like a good mood booster to someone suffering from depression, however, gambling affects the brain’s reward system in the same way that drugs do. It produces endorphins and adrenaline, even when a person is losing, which encourages them to continue gambling. Over time, gambling becomes less rewarding as a person builds a tolerance. This means that they need to wager more and take bigger risks to feel the same excitement.

As a person experiences these adrenaline rushes and the excitement of gambling, their mood temporarily goes up and then returns to normal. Problem gambling can cause a person’s mood baseline to go down even when they are not gambling. This can lead to depression, which may increase as a person continues to gamble more than they mean to, lose money, or unsuccessfully try to quit.


Signs of a Gambling Problem

  • Repeated gambling behavior that leads to distress

  • A constant need to take bigger risks or wager larger amounts of money to get the same thrill

  • Restlessness or irritability when trying to cut down on gambling

  • Taking bigger risks after a loss to attempt to win money back

  • Lying to family and friends to attempt to hide the extent of gambling

  • Numerous unsuccessful attempts to control, cut down, or stop gambling

  • Gambling to escape problems or relieve feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, or depression

  • Resorting to theft or fraud to get gambling money

  • Asking friends or family members to bail them out of financial trouble because they gambled their money away

  • Jeopardizing or losing a job, relationship, or other opportunities because of gambling

Signs of a Substance Use Disorder

  • Taking large amounts of a substance for a longer period of time than originally intended

  • Spending lots of time on activities that are needed to support the drug or alcohol habit

  • Strong desires to use the substance

  • Continuing to use the substance despite the consequences

  • Giving up or missing important social opportunities to use the substance

  • Repeated use of the substance in dangerous situations

  • A higher tolerance for the substance, needing to use more to achieve the same results

  • Withdrawal when the substance is taken in smaller amounts or stopped

Getting Help

The National Problem Gambling Hotline 1-800-522-4700

Take a screening for problem gambling behavior here

Find resources and more from The Hub

List of resources from DMHAS

Universal Screening Tool for Providers



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