Compulsive Gambling Addiction: Causes, Signs & Treatment

Compulsive Gambling Addiction Guide

If you or someone you care about has a gambling problem, there is help. Compulsive gambling, sometimes referred to as problem gambling or gambling disorder, is the uncontrollable urge to risk something of value to win something of greater value. Individuals with gambling addiction feel a strong rush that is similar to substance abuse. When gambling continues even as it causes problems in other areas of life, such as relationships or professional reputation, that is defined as problem gambling.

Like substance addiction, gambling addiction is a chronic disease that gets progressively worse if left untreated. When you or your loved one asks for gambling problem help, you can stop the addiction in its tracks.1-get-gambling-help

Gambling Problem Help

Many individuals who get help for compulsive gambling wind up quitting for good and leading productive, satisfying lifestyles. There is a wide range of treatment options available, ranging from self-help support groups to inpatient holistic treatment.

If you or your loved one drinks alcohol or uses drugs while gambling, substance abuse may play a role in the addiction. Some types of treatment programs, including inpatient holistic treatment, can help with substance abuse and gambling at the same time. Whether substance abuse is a problem or not, the earlier an individual enrolls in gambling addiction treatment, the easier the road to recovery can be.

It can be hard to believe you or your loved one needs help with a gambling addiction, especially since there are often no physical symptoms, unlike a substance abuse addiction. Yet gambling addiction destroys families, careers and reputations. Lying, hiding and denying take their toll just as gambling losses do. Gambling is a problem if it causes problems. If someone you love needs help, it may be time to plan a compulsive gambling intervention.


Convincing a Loved One to Get Help With Problem Gambling

One of the biggest problems with addiction is troubled individuals are often the last to accept a problem exists. This happens because activities such as gambling, drinking and doing drugs change how the brain releases certain feel-good chemicals. These chemicals change how an addicted individual judges risk, makes decisions and remembers consequences and pleasurable feelings.

Over time, you or your loved one will develop a strong mental relationship between gambling and feeling relaxed or high. When gambling addiction takes over, the only way you or your loved one can feel normal is through gambling. Without gambling or treatment, you will feel anxious and irritable, and crave the false good feelings gambling provides. Gambling treatment resets thought processes and retrains the brain to find pleasure in healthier choices.

The biggest hurdle before treatment begins is usually convincing the addicted person help is necessary and available. When you speak to your loved one about his or her gambling problem, choosing the right time is absolutely essential.

Addicted individuals are usually extremely sensitive. Never embarrass or humiliate your loved one by openly criticizing his or her gambling in a spur-of-the-moment public attack when others are present. This may make your loved one withdraw from you and could make the problem worse. Instead, choose a quiet time when it’s just the two of you. If he or she recently sustained a big gambling loss or suffered another difficult life event that relates to gambling, that may be a good time to talk.


When you speak with your loved one, make sure he or she has not been using alcohol or drugs. Avoid times when your loved one is actively gambling — for example, while he or she is on the computer playing online poker.

Plan what you will say in advance. Select concrete examples that demonstrate times when the gambling addiction caused problems. Try statements such as, “I felt hurt and lonely when you forgot our anniversary because you were gambling” or “I worry about how gambling is affecting our family.” Avoid confrontational language that could escalate the discussion into an argument. Questions such as “What’s wrong with you?” and “You’re so stupid. Why do you keep on gambling?” won’t yield the productive discussion you both need.

Bring support group and counseling information to your conversation so you are prepared if your loved one wants to get help right away. Unfortunately, these conversations don’t always work the first time. You should also be prepared that your discussion, no matter how well executed, may result in an argument.

You should prepare to hear denials and accusations, especially if you gamble yourself. Try to keep the focus on your loved one as much as possible. If the conversation goes nowhere, or if he or she promises to get help but the problem just gets worse, it may be time to plan an intervention.

How to Stage an Intervention

The intervention is a powerful tool that can lead an addicted person to getting help. Interventions are formal conversations between you, your struggling loved one and a small group who has been affected by the gambling problem. A professional interventionist should lead the meeting. Participants may include parents, older children, coworkers, friends, clergy and other relevant individuals. The overall group typically includes about five or six people, not including the interventionist.

The point of the intervention is to convince your loved one to enroll in treatment. Interventions are emotionally challenging for all participants, especially for the addicted individual. It can be difficult to keep on track, yet staying on plan is absolutely critical to the success of the meeting. That’s why many people choose to hire professional interventionists.

During the intervention, you and those who care for the struggling addict will gently but truthfully confront him or her about the behavior. Your loved one will be given a choice: Get help now or suffer serious consequences.

Each participant will identify clear examples of when gambling caused a serious problem. Participants will also promise to provide full support to the struggling individual if he or she agrees to get help for compulsive gambling right away. Should the struggling individual decide not to get help, the participants will put the consequences into place decided on in advance of the meeting.

The nature of intervention means it can be easy for your loved one to feel ambushed and defensive. That’s one reason why you may want to consider speaking with him or her privately in advance of the meeting. It’s also why hiring an interventionist is wise. The interventionist will help you choose participants as well as plan timing and location. The interventionist can also escort your loved one directly to treatment right after the meeting.

Interventions are not always successful right away. If your loved one refuses treatment, remember many people who used to be addicted to gambling point to a “failed” intervention as one of the key reasons they decided to get help.


Compulsive Gambling Treatment

Compulsive gambling may not cause the profound physical withdrawal symptoms that drugs such as heroin do, but quitting suddenly can result in other complications. If you are the individual with problem gambling, you can expect to feel anxious or depressed. You might find you have difficulty concentrating on important tasks because all you feel like doing is gambling. Sleep may be elusive.

If you drink or do drugs, you might find yourself with a growing substance abuse problem. If you have tried to stop gambling before but find the emotional withdrawal symptoms cause too much discomfort — and especially if you turn to drinking or drugs to relieve these uncomfortable symptoms — the time to get help is now.

There is a strong link between compulsive gambling and substance abuse, and alcoholism in particular. Multiple studies report overwhelming evidence that as a gambling problem grows worse, so does substance abuse. Nearly half of individuals with gambling addiction also demonstrate signs of alcohol use disorder. If you worry about how drinking or doing drugs affects your life, and you have a gambling problem, you can get treatment for both at the same time.

There are a wide variety of self-help support, counseling and treatment options. If you are in the early stages of a gambling problem, making a public promise to quit and joining a self-help group such as Gamblers’ Anonymous may be enough.

If you’ve tried self-help support before but wound up relapsing, try one-on-one counseling. Counseling provides customized treatment. It encourages you to think about the reasons why you choose to gamble and examine your feelings before, during and after gambling occurs. Counseling can also teach you certain tools and techniques that provide relief when common recovery problems such as cravings and stress occur.

If you or your loved one has a pathological gambling problem, it may be time to consider holistic inpatient treatment. Addiction professionals from respected nonprofit organizations such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse recognize holistic care as resulting in the best overall treatment outcomes. “Holistic” pertains to overall well being, including physical, psychological and spiritual health. Many holistic treatment centers provide care for substance abuse problems as well as gambling addiction, depression and anxiety. This lets you manage multiple problems at the same time.

If you have a co-occurring substance abuse problem, you may begin inpatient treatment with professionally managed detox. Detox helps with physical withdrawal symptoms and makes the transition to sober living more comfortable.

If you don’t drink or do drugs, or you’re finished with detox, you’ll begin your recovery with a customized plan your treatment team designs for your specific needs. This may include psychotherapy for co-occurring disorders such as depression or anxiety. You may also engage in behavioral therapy as well as family and group counseling. When it’s time to relax, you’ll spend time doing enjoyable, life-affirming activities that remind you how fun living sober can be.

Once you’re finished with inpatient care, you’ll return home. This transition can be difficult when the old choices are no longer viable options. A high-quality treatment center will help you develop a support system and stay in touch with you after inpatient care ends.

This support system may include safe family members and friends who care about what’s best for you. It will also put you in touch with local professionals who can provide you with outpatient care. Addiction is a chronic disease that may return if left untreated, not unlike health problems such as diabetes. With a commitment to lifelong care, you can sustain your commitment to abstinence.

Transforming Your Life After Gambling Addiction Treatment

Admitting you needed help and getting through treatment may ultimately become two of the most difficult tasks you’ll ever accomplish, yet staying abstinent for the long term also presents challenges. Many individuals with addiction find they must completely transform their lives to stay sober.

In some cases, that means making extremely difficult choices, such as letting unhealthy relationships go. It might also mean giving up control of finances, finding a new place to work or live, or simply regaining the trust of family members who love you but worry about getting hurt again.

To succeed, you may need to make bold decisions, but the decisions may be easier than the acts themselves:

  • Block online gambling sites — If you gamble online, ask a friend or loved one to block online gambling websites from your computer before you arrive home.
  • Skip poker night with your buddies — Ask yourself if anyone who wants you to gamble after you just got back from treatment really cares about your best interests.
  • Stay away from gambling places — If you always drive past a place where gambling occurs, change the route.
  • Nurture positive relationships — Spend more time with people who don’t gamble or abuse substances. When you feel the urge to gamble, call a supportive friend or exercise instead.

At first these choices won’t seem natural. But as you heal, you’ll retrain your brain to think healthier thoughts — and you may find yourself less tempted to gamble.

Keep in mind addiction is a problem that waits for moments of weakness. Just when you think you have it beat, the urge to gamble might come back stronger than ever. You might believe you’re stronger than gambling because you haven’t gambled in a long time. You’re not. If you’ve been abstinent for a long time and worry about going back to gambling, ask for help. Individuals who accept addiction is a disease requiring a lifetime of treatment are more likely to stay sober.


Gambling Addiction Is Treatable

individuals with compulsive gambling are usually men. Women, however, get addicted to gambling faster, and the number of problem gamblers who are women is rising.

Addiction is a chronic, progressive disease. Waiting to get help can lead to extremely serious physical, psychological and social consequences. Nevertheless, gambling addiction is treatable, and behavioral therapy has proven itself effective at helping struggling individuals cope with uncomfortable psychological problems. After rehab, many individuals with gambling addiction go on to live happier, healthier lifestyles.

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Reviewed By:

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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