What Is a Gambling Addiction?
Like a drug or alcohol addiction, a gambling addiction encompasses uncontrolled and problematic behavior. As such, it falls into a category of behavioral addictions that have recently garnered more scientific attention in the addiction research industry. As of 2013, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) reclassified Pathological Gambling (akin to impulse control issues) as Gambling Disorder. The changes made by the American Psychiatric Association (the organization responsible for the manual’s contents) were integral in recognizing this behavior not as a coping mechanism, but as an addiction. Accordingly, gambling addiction is now recognized as a primary disorder, categorized by uncontrolled compulsions to gamble despite an array of negative consequences–ranging from financial to personal issues.
Not everyone who gambles develops an addiction. Similar to alcohol consumption, a small portion of people who engage in the behavior progress to an addiction. The National Center for Responsible Gaming estimates that up to 1.6% of American adults (nearly 4 million people) have a gambling addiction. The center, founded by members of the gaming industry, estimate that another 5 to 8 million Americans exhibit one or more of the DSM-V’s criteria for addiction.
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Symptoms of Gambling Addiction
Individuals with a gambling addiction may have started gambling as a benign diversion. Yet, when they begin to hide or lie about their habit, it is a sign they may have progressed into addictive behavior. The extent to which individuals go to keep their gambling secret (such as setting up separate bank accounts to fund their gambling) often makes it difficult for loved ones to recognize the symptoms.
To be diagnosed with a gambling addiction, an individual must have exhibited at least four of the following symptoms in the past year:
- Gambling with increasing amounts of money to achieve the desired result
- Becoming restless or irritable when trying to cut down or stop gambling
- Trying repeatedly to control, cut back, or stop gambling unsuccessfully
- Thinking about gambling frequently (such as reliving past experiences, planning the next visit, and thinking of ways to get money to gamble)
- Gambling when you feel distressed
- After losing money, spending more to recoup losses (known as “chasing” your losses)
- Lying about gambling activities
- Jeopardizing or losing a significant relationship, job, or educational/career opportunity because of gambling
- Relying on others to help with money problems caused by gambling
Source: American Psychiatric Association
Other signs of a potential gambling addiction include gambling to escape your problems or to deal with feelings of anxiety, guilt, or depression. Furthermore, stealing money from family or friends, or embezzling money from a job, is a clear red flag of addiction.
Gambling’s Effect on the Brain
A gambling addiction changes the way the brain responds to certain stimuli (such as wins and losses) that is similar to the effects of some illicit substances. After winning, dopamine (a chemical released in the brain’s “reward” pathways) causes an individual to experience a jolt of euphoria. Enjoying the feeling, a person may continue to gamble in hopes of winning and getting another shot of dopamine. Triggering this response repeatedly in a short period of time creates a tolerance to its effects. Over time, repeated exposure to dopamine weakens the reward response and an individual will feel the need to gamble more to get the same feeling.
Additionally, electric gaming machines (such as slot machines) can cause a dopamine response without an individual ever hitting a jackpot. Near misses (when a symbol is just above or below the jackpot line, appearing to be closer to a win than it actually is) and false wins (for instance, when an individual bets $4 on multiline jackpots and wins $1) result in the same dopamine response as a true win. This can keep individuals gambling in spite of prolonged periods of losses.
According to gambling addiction experts, casino games are designed to lure patrons into “a state of ongoing, undiminished possibility that [can] trump the finite reward of a win.” Players have been known to spend upwards of 12 hours a day in windowless, clock-less casino halls.
Gambling Addiction Statistics
One in five (or 20%) adults suffering from a gambling addiction attempt suicide.
About 4 million American adults qualify as pathological gamblers.
Fewer than 10% of people with a gambling addiction receive treatment.
Gambling Addiction and the Elderly
By 2016, casino goers spent $37 billion annually gambling–more than was spent on sporting events, movie tickets, and music purchases combined. For individuals on a fixed income, typically the elderly and people receiving government benefits, the losses associated with gambling can be devastating.
To prevent the development of a gambling addiction, the American Psychiatric Association encourages families to speak with elderly members about reasonable amounts of time and money to be spent as well as setting aside a fixed amount of money each month. It’s important to discuss the warning signs of addiction and to educate all family members about the dangers of excessive gambling. Gambling should not be the only leisure time activity for elderly parents.
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Treating Gambling Addiction
Most who suffer from an addiction of any kind will need help facing their problem and quitting. Because addiction affects everyone differently, there are several treatment methods available to help someone recover. Some therapy approaches include cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, group therapy, and family therapy. Support groups for the individual and their family (such as Gamblers Anonymous and Gam-Anon) are also great resources for peer support. Physical activity has also been shown to help those in recovery. Other ways to mitigate gambling cravings include:
- Avoid old triggers that make you want to gamble
- Contact a loved one or attend a peer support meeting
- Distract yourself with another activity
- Put off gambling until the urge subsides
- Consider the consequences of gambling again
- Look for a healthy way to socialize to avoid isolation
Currently, there are no FDA-approved medications to treat a gambling addiction. However, Naltrexone (an Opioid treatment medication) has been used successfully in some patients to curb addiction over time. Lithium (a mood stabilizer) and antidepressants may alleviate other co-occurring mental health issues such as depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and chronic anxiety.
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