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Gambling addiction symptoms and treatment

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Gambling addiction is an uncontrollable urge or compulsive need to keep gambling despite the consequences and effects on life. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5) by the American Psychiatric Association uses the term gambling disorder and classifies it among non-substance-related disorders. 

A person with this addiction is unable to stop gambling, even when they attempt to do so. Gambling disorder harms a person’s physical and psychological health alike. Addiction to gambling also causes financial and legal troubles.

The main symptoms of gambling addiction include being preoccupied with gambling and spending higher amounts of money to make up for the losses. Unsuccessful attempts to stop gambling are also a symptom of addiction. Other symptoms include restlessness and irritability when not being able to gamble, lying about the extent of the problem, jeopardizing relationships due to gambling, and engaging in risky activities such as theft to get money for gambling.

Although gambling addiction is a progressive compulsive disorder and it can cause disastrous effects, people can achieve successful recovery. Treatment for gambling addiction relies on a combination of therapy, medications, and support groups.

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What are the symptoms of Gambling addiction?

The symptoms of gambling addiction are listed below.

  • Spending a lot of time on gambling and planning how to get gambling money
  • Needing to spend increasing amounts of money on gambling just to experience the same excitement
  • Unsuccessful attempts to control or stop gambling
  • Irritability and restlessness when trying to stop gambling
  • Using gambling to escape problems, feel better, or relieve depression, anxiety, and helplessness
  • Chasing losses or trying to get back money lost with gambling
  • Lying to family and friends about the severity of a gambling problem
  • Jeopardizing relationships and work or school due to gambling
  • Engaging in risky activities such as fraud or theft to get gambling money
  • Asking family or friends to resolve financial problems caused by gambling 

Consequences of this non-substance-related disorder have behavioral and psychological effects. For instance, people with gambling disorders tend to experience depression, distress, and anxiety. As the condition worsens, people feel helpless, and many resorts to suicidal thoughts and tendencies. 

Plus, someone with a gambling addiction can be hostile to others, especially when they’re losing money or in cases when other people express concerns about their behavior. When left unresolved, gambling addiction can lead to financial debt, bankruptcy, arrests, unemployment, and other disastrous outcomes.

Gambling addiction symptoms are discussed in more detail below.

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1. Being preoccupied with gambling, such as constantly planning how to get more gambling money

People with this addiction only think about gambling and the moves they’re going to make next time. 

Additionally, patients with gambling addiction always think about finding new ways to get more money. Many of them have financial difficulties due to gambling. For that reason, they are focused on getting more and more money to spend on gambling, hoping they will win or chase losses. 

Men and women with gambling addiction neglect their responsibilities. Many of them lose interest in things they used to enjoy. As their world revolves around gambling, persons with addiction may also isolate themselves from their family and friends in favor of spending time with other people who gamble too.

2. Needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money to get the same thrill

Gambling addiction is a progressive disorder meaning a person has the compulsive need to spend more and more money to experience the excitement. This common symptom of gambling addiction has a lot to do with the neurotransmitter dopamine.

When a person gambles, their brain releases dopamine, the feel-good chemical. Dopamine regulates the brain’s reward system. The release of dopamine induces excitement and the “rush” that people experience when gambling. However, excitement and thrill aren’t just products of winning; they also happen when someone loses. As the thrill takes over, it becomes difficult to understand when it’s time to stop. 

Continued exposure to gambling weakens dopamine receptors. Amounts of money that someone used before aren’t enough to generate the same excitement and thrill. This is when people believe they need more money for gambling. That’s also the answer to the question, “why is gambling addictive.”

3. Trying to control, cut back or stop gambling without success

A person with gambling addiction often attempts to cut back or stop gambling entirely. These efforts are usually unsuccessful. A common misconception is that people with gambling addiction can stop whenever they want. What makes their attempts unsuccessful is the dopamine, as mentioned above. 

The brain wants more, and so does the body. When an addicted individual tries to stop gambling, dopamine levels aren’t high anymore, so they experience withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms include strong cravings and an urge to gamble as well as other unpleasant effects. Many people start gambling again as a result.

4. Feeling restless or irritable when you try to cut down on gambling

When unable to gamble or they’re trying to cut down and stop, people with this addiction feel restless or irritable. They become frustrated and moody. All this happens due to withdrawal that kicks in as soon as someone stops or cuts down gambling. While withdrawal symptoms are usually associated with substance use disorders, people with gambling addiction can also experience them. This is particularly the case for individuals with severe gambling disorders.

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

Gambling serves as an escape mechanism for many people with this disorder. They start (and continue) gambling to escape guilt, self-loathing, helplessness, depression, anxiety, and other negative feelings and emotions. For example, a person with a gambling disorder may choose to gamble after a stressful day at work or after a fight with their spouse. 

For them, gambling appears to be helpful, i.e., they don’t consider it a problem but rather a part of the solution. However, the practice of using gambling to escape problems and negative emotions only worsens their addiction.

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6. Trying to get back lost money by gambling more (chasing losses)

When someone with a gambling addiction loses money, they increase spending and gambling in order to get back what they lost. This kind of behavior is called chasing losses. 

Loss-chasing is widely considered a defining feature of gambling disorder. In fact, this practice is the hallmark of the transition from recreational to problem gambling. More precisely, recreational gamblers don’t chase losses. 

Evidence shows over 75% of problem gamblers reported chasing losses. Interestingly, loss-chasing tends to occur even when other common indicators of problem gambling do not, according to a paper from the Frontiers in Psychology.

7. Lying to family members or others to hide the extent of your gambling

In an attempt to hide the extent or severity of gambling addiction, the affected persons lie to their family members and friends. Denial is a major symptom of gambling addiction i.e. a person refuses to acknowledge they have a problem. 

In many cases, people with gambling addiction lie to the ones they love the most. 

All addicts lie for a specific reason. Others don’t want their family and friends to constantly complain, so they lie, hoping it will make them stop. Some people with gambling addiction lie because they don’t want to reveal how much money they’ve lost. Also, problem gamblers lie because they believe they’re close to redeeming themselves. 

Regardless of the reason, a person with a gambling addiction may resort to lying or becoming hostile and aggressive just to conceal the severity of their problem.

8. Jeopardizing or losing important relationships, a job, or school or work opportunities because of gambling

An addicted gambler often deals with problems at work or school because they’re mainly focused on gambling. Their productivity suffers, and many of them lose their jobs. 

However, relationships suffer too. Studies confirm that gambling disorder can lead to broken relationships, separation, and divorce. The main problems that lead to relationship troubles are financial difficulties, lost trust between people, and lack of commitment to the relationship.

It’s not just a romantic relationship that suffers due to gambling addiction. This problem can affect any other relationship, such as friendship, family bonds, and others.

9. Resorting to theft or fraud to get gambling money

Persons with gambling addiction often participate in risky activities such as theft or fraud to obtain gambling money. As their addiction worsens, they need increasing amounts of money to continue gambling. As a result, financial difficulties arise. However, having financial problems doesn’t stop a person from gambling, they continue doing so by engaging in dangerous and criminal activities to secure more money. 

A gambling addict may even steal money from their family, friends, and coworkers. To them, money serves as motivation. For example, they may take cash, stuff to sell for gambling money, or credit card information (for online gambling).

A review from the Journal of Gambling Studies confirms that gambling-related criminal activities usually consist of non-violent and income-generated offenses. That said, some problem gamblers may comment on violent crimes, but this subject requires further research.

10. Asking others to bail you out of financial trouble because you gambled the money away

People with gambling addiction tend to ask others to bail them out of their financial problems because these problems, such as debt and bankruptcy, are too difficult for them to handle on their own. The average debt generated by a man with a gambling addiction goes from $55,000 to $90,000. Women usually generate a debt of $15,000. Over 20% of compulsive gamblers file bankruptcy, according to Debt.org

Although it’s perfectly natural to want to help a friend or family member in need, resolving their financial problems can enable their addiction. That happens because they keep relying on other people to bail them out. 

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What causes Gambling addiction?

The causes of gambling addiction aren’t well-understood, which is why further research is necessary. Understanding the causes could teach people how to prevent gambling addiction. Why do people gamble? The possible causes of gambling are listed below.

  • Biological: dopamine release 
  • Genetic: higher frequency of genetic polymorphisms that act on the dopamine system
  • Environmental: family dynamics, social circle, normalized gambling through pop culture and social media, easy access to gambling 

What are the risk factors for Gambling addiction?

Risk factors for gambling addiction include the presence of other mental health disorders, younger and middle age, being a man, family history of gambling, socializing with people who gamble, having certain personality characteristics, and taking dopamine agonists medications, according to Mayo Clinic

More precisely, people with certain mental health disorders are more likely to develop a gambling problem. These include bipolar disorder, OCD, ADHD, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and substance use disorders. Additionally, specific character traits could indicate a higher likelihood of gambling addiction. Impulsive, highly competitive people, workaholics, and restless or easily bored individuals could be more susceptible to compulsive gambling.

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When to seek a doctor for Gambling addiction?

A person with gambling addiction should see a doctor when their friends, family, or coworkers express concerns about their gambling. Although people tend to deny the presence of a problem, they should still see a healthcare professional. 

What do you call a person who is addicted to gambling?

A person who is addicted to gambling is called a pathological gambler, compulsive gambler, or problem gambler. The term “plunker” is also popular, although insulting to many. The most correct way to call a person with this disorder is a person with a gambling addiction. 

What are the possible treatments for Gambling addiction?

The possible treatments for gambling addiction are listed below.

  • Behavioral therapy
  • Medications
  • Self-help (support) groups

Treatment for addiction to gambling is effective, but to make it happen, the affected individual needs to acknowledge they have a problem. A well-structured treatment is necessary for a successful outcome. An ideal treatment program should be customized to meet the specific needs of each patient. Inpatient and outpatient treatment programs are available, depending on the severity of the addiction.

The costs of gambling addiction treatment vary from one treatment center to another. Average costs go from $3000 to $11,000 a year. For more specific costs, patients need to contact the treatment center they choose. Many treatment centers accept health insurance, which can cover the total or partial costs.

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1. Therapy

In the treatment of gambling addiction therapy relies on systematic exposure to the problematic behavior and teaches patients skills to decrease the urge to gamble. 

The therapist chooses the most suitable form of therapy based on the patient’s condition. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common method. Evidence confirms CBT is effective for the treatment of pathological gambling, even when cultural beliefs enable addiction.

The primary objective of CBT is to help patients identify negative thoughts and behaviors that contribute to gambling addiction. Then, patients learn how to replace them with positive, healthier outcomes. Also, CBT helps patients cope with stress, depression, and negative emotions and feelings in a healthier way. 

With regular therapy sessions, patients change the way they think or feel about gambling. 

2. Medications

At this point, there is no medication developed specifically for gambling addiction. Doctors may prescribe certain medications to reduce gambling behavior. Plus, since patients with gambling addiction tend to have other mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, healthcare professionals may prescribe medications to manage them. The medications for the treatment of gambling addiction include antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and narcotic antagonists.

Medications are never standalone treatment options for patients with gambling disorders. Doctors only prescribe them in combination with other treatment options. The most important role of medications is to manage underlying mental health disorders or substance use disorders because they could otherwise worsen gambling addiction and interfere with the treatment.

3. Self-help groups

Self-help groups such as Gamblers Anonymous are vital for people with gambling addiction. They enable patients to open up and share their experiences with gambling addiction in a safe and non-judgmental environment. Besides sharing their experiences, patients also receive support and encouragement. They offer the same to others. 

For the best results, it’s useful to attend sessions regularly. Support groups are crucial during the recovery period and beyond. They provide more structure and much-needed support to persons who have completed gambling addiction treatment. 

People in the same situation can hold one another accountable and thereby help each other to overcome this serious problem.