Gambling is legal in dozens of countries and it is enjoyed on a daily basis by millions of people. We gamble on casino games and sports; we gamble with dice and poker chips. In many parts of the world, it’s part of the culture and is widely accepted and embraced. But while most people enjoy gambling without issue, there is a small number for whom gambling is life-changing, and not in a good way.
Problem gambling is more prevalent in the digital age. It has never been easier to cash your paycheque, turn it into online gambling chips, and blow everything on a few quick games. It’s quite frightening, when you think about it, and that’s why it’s so important to understand what the risks are, how to spot them, and how to change harmful habits.
What is Gambling Addiction?
Gambling addiction is a recognised mental health condition. The act of gambling triggers a neurological reaction, and it’s this rush that gamblers chase. Gambling addiction can vary greatly from one person to the next and this is one of the reasons why it’s so hard for problem gamblers to self-diagnose.
The term “problem gambling” generally refers to someone who is showing symptoms of gambling addiction but has yet to develop a full addiction just yet.
Gambling has been likened to a drug, and gambling addiction to drug addiction. To an extent, this is true, as both trigger a “rush” that the user chases, but there are some notable differences.
For instance, if you take heroin every day, you’re addicted. It is a high addictive drug and daily use over the course of many weeks is enough to create both a psychological and physiological dependence, even if you’re using a relatively small amount.
The same is true for alcohol. If you’re drinking from morning until night, and from Monday until Sunday, you have a problem and it needs to be addressed.
Gambling can be more complicated and insidious than that.
If you earn $10,000 a week in a very high-paying job, and you place a few small $10 bets just to make a football match more entertaining, you likely don’t have an issue, even if you’re doing that every day without fail.
On the flip side, if you work hard through the week to earn a $1,000 paycheque, only to blow all $1,000 on the weekend in a mad fit of sports betting and casino gambling, and you spent all week thinking about those two days and the bets you would place, you have a problem.
In other words, it’s possible to gamble frequently and not be a problem gambler, just as it’s possible to gamble infrequently and have a serious issue.
That’s because there are generally several different categories of problem gambler:
The Binge Gambler
This is the category that the example above would fall into. It describes someone who doesn’t gamble frequently and can go several weeks or months without placing a bet, only to lose everything in a single night of madness.
During that single day or weekend, they gamble more than they can afford to lose and find themselves chasing bets, getting frustrated, and then feeling depressed when it’s all over.
The Compulsive Gambler
The compulsive gambler places wages out of compulsion. It’s part of their every day and it’s something that comes natural to them. As noted above, there is a huge range to cover here, but if you’re on the level where your gambling is making you angry or depressed, you may have a serious gambling problem.
The Problem Gambler
As noted above, a problem gambler is someone who is beginning to develop issues but the gambling is not yet taking over their life. Problem gambling and gambling addiction are also used interchangeably, as they are both destructive behaviours that revolve around gambling.
Problem Gambling Checklist
If you’re worried that a loved one might be a problem gambler, or you’re looking for signs in your own habits, take a look at the following checklist. For gambling addiction to be diagnosed, you need to check at least four of the boxes below:
Feeling the need to gamble with larger amounts of money to feel the same “buzz” as before.
Gambling, like all addictions, creates a tolerance of sorts, and it's harder to achieve the same "high" without increasing the risk.
Feeling very irritable when trying to stop gambling or cut back on gambling activities.
There is no physiological withdrawal symptoms, but the cravings and the fact that it's constantly on your mind may make you irritable.
Trying and failing to stop multiple times.
Multiple relapses and failures are common with all addictions.
Spending a lot of time thinking about gambling, including past victories and future events.
If it's the only thing on your mind, it suggests a serious problem.
Gambling when depressed or anxious.
It's not necessarily about gambling to cheer yourself up, but more about using it as a crutch, just like some people turn to alcohol, drugs, and junk food.
Chasing your losses by increasing your stake to get back lost money back.
The desperation leads people to increase their stakes to win back their losses.
Lying about your habits to your loved ones, including the amount that you are gambling.
Shame may cause problem gamblers to lie to their loved ones.
Losing a career or relationship as a result of gambling.
If those lies continue, relationships may break down, and gamblers may be too focused on their gambling to care.
Borrowing money from others to help with gambling and relying on their support to get you through.
An issue that suggests the gambler won't stop even when they have none of their own cash left.
Of course, there are degrees to all of these, but if you tick at least four of these boxes you may have a gambling addiction and should seek help.
The Problems with Gambling Addiction
Many gamblers on the brink of addiction argue that they are doing nothing wrong and that their habit isn’t causing anyone any harm. They insist that they can take the hit, and that they make enough money to cover their losses, even when those losses are substantial. But there are usually some effects that they are not thinking about, and it’s these effects that concern regulators like the UK Gambling Commission.
Sure, one of the biggest issues with gambling addiction is that it drains the finances, but there’s more to it than that, including:
Gambling addicts rarely think about the bigger picture when ignoring their gambling addiction. They think, “I make $1,000 a week so I can afford to lose $500”, but they don’t think about where that money should be going.
They don’t think about all of the money that they could and should be putting aside for a rainy day, or the money that they could use to clear debts. As a result, they’re constantly straddling a financial tightrope and it takes just one mishap for them to topple over the edge and lose everything.
Before they know it, their relative comfort has disappeared and has been replaced by mounting debts and a hole that they can’t dig themselves out of.
Depression, anxiety, anger issues—gambling addiction takes its toll on the addict’s mental health. Many gambling addicts feel alone. They are ashamed to tell their family and their friends, and so the emotions just build up and worsen over time. It’s thought to be one of the reasons that so many young men are taking their own lives, as they feel like there is no other way out.
If your mental health is suffering and your relationships are struggling, your career will inevitably follow suit. The terrible irony of gambling addiction is that it causes many sufferers to underperform or even refuse to go to work, which means they lose their source of income and find themselves in more trouble than they were before.
Gambling addicts often get angry when they start losing money. They feel frustrated and like the world is against them. They get angry with the casino and the betting site. They get angry with the slots for not paying out, the football players for not scoring, and themselves for placing the bet.
All of this can have a massively detrimental effect on their interpersonal relationships. They lose their temper easily and start snapping at the people that they love.
Drugs and Alcohol
Problem gamblers with a history of drug and alcohol abuse are more likely to relapse after a heavy gambling session. Losing all of that money makes them depressed and can leave them with an “all or nothing attitude”.
It’s like when you’re on a strict diet and you cave in and eat a big slice of chocolate cake. A little voice in the back of your mind screams, “Go on. Eat all of the cake. You might as well”. Once you’ve lost all of that money and your mental health has taken a hit, it’s easier to turn back to the harmful substances that dull your emotions.
What are the Causes?
There is no clear and obvious cause for gambling addiction. It seems to have multiple causes and these can vary from user to user, including environmental, social, and psychological.
Someone with an addictive personality is more likely to have problems with gambling. In fact, substance abuse co-morbidity is very common, which means that many gambling addicts also drink a lot or abuse drugs. These substances may suppress their reasoning and their inhibitions, leading to frequent bouts of uncontrolled gambling.
Isolation and boredom are also major causes. There was a sizeable uptick in the number of problem gambling cases during 2020 and 2021, for instance. Not only were people spending more time at home with nothing to keep them occupied, but they were also dealing with higher levels of stress and depression and many resorted to gambling.
Unsurprisingly, it’s also more common for gambling addictions to appear in individuals who work in the gambling industry, as they are exposed to it on a daily basis.
What is the Solution?
The first step to fixing the problem is to realize that you have a problem in the first place. This is something that many problem gamblers fail to do, making excuses like, “I win more than I lose”. In this case, simply look back over your online casino or sports betting accounts and see how much you have actually won or lost.
You can also check your payment option, as web wallets will keep track and can be used to place limits. It’s not as easy with Bitcoin casinos though.
Many modern gambling sites keep track of all this data and if you can’t find a simple profit and loss statement, you can also check your history and compare the deposits to the withdrawals.
We tend to remember the wins more than the losses and doing this is often enough to open your eyes to the problem.
Another excuse is that “I can stop anytime that I want”. It is the stereotypical excuse used by alcoholics and drug addicts. If you believe this to be true, then stop, and see how easy it really is.
Getting Help with Problem Gambling
If you believe that a loved one has an issue with gambling, then you should tackle the situation gently and try to avoid confrontation and arguments. Many problem gamblers suffer alone because they feel ashamed that they have lost so much money and have a problem that they have been hiding from the world.
This is especially true for spouses and other long-term partners, as they will be worried that you will judge them or even hate them for wasting money that could have been used to buy a car or house or even pay for a holiday. If there are debts involved, they will be even more ashamed, and as angry as you are with them, it’s important to be understanding.
Let them know that you suspect they have a problem, wait for the excuses, and then show them proof. Stay calm and don’t engage them in an argument, as it’s highly likely that they will get defensive.
Once they have admitted to the problem and taken that first step, you can start looking for some solutions. These solutions will also help if you are the one suffering from gambling addiction and you are desperately looking for ways to deal with the problem:
- Use self-exclusion tools on most sportsbooks and online casinos.
- If you insist on leaving at least one site active, make sure it has strict deposit limits set.
- Arrange for some accountability by sharing a bank account. If you share an account with your partner, you will be much less likely to deposit large sums of money from that account.
- Look out for the triggers and try to avoid them. This can include everything from casino advertisements to Saturday afternoon football games.
There are helplines that you can contact as well, all of which are designed to help problem gamblers to tackle this issue: