Gambling Addiction: what it is, causes, symptoms and help available

What is gambling addiction?

Gambling addiction, also known as compulsive gambling, pathological gambling, or having a gambling disorder, involves a repeated gambling behaviour even when it has negative consequences on our life and those closest to us such as family or friends. It is also an impulse control disorder, as being a compulsive gambler means there is an inability to be able to control the impulse to gamble. The individual with the issue would be prepared to lose everything on a role of the dice or the ‘dead certainty’ horse race at Newmarket without a concern for the consequences. So how does gambling addiction evolve?

man using online sports betting services phone laptop

Why do people gamble?

A gambling disorder is a chronic mental health condition that will adversely affect all aspects of your life. People start to gamble for many reasons not for one minute thinking that their behaviour will lead them down a road to addiction. Gambling problems can happen to anyone from any walk of life and, for some, the gambling goes from a fun harmless diversion to an unhealthy obsession with serious consequences.

Starting to have the odd bet could be seen as the possible way  to solve a financial situation, an escape from worries or stress of our daily life, or even trying to alleviate boredom. Some may just enjoy the adrenaline rush when we actually win. When our behaviour moves on to the level of problem gambling and our health and relationships start to become affected by our addictive actions and we find that we are in financial debt yet we still continue to gamble, that is the time we should be asking for help as the situation will only worsen.

Signs of gambling addiction

Gambling addiction is often called the “hidden illness” because there are no obvious early physical signs as there would be with an alcohol or drug addiction. The following indicators may help you identify that you have a gambling problem:

  • You spend more money on gambling than you can afford
  • You borrow or steal to fund your gambling
  • You lie to family or friends about your gambling when they question you about your behaviour
  • You have episodes of gambling when you are experiencing difficult feelings such as feeling depressed
  • You are preoccupied with thoughts of gambling when not gambling
  • You family and friends notice rapid mood swings and periods of depressive episodes
  • You try to get money back by gambling more
  • You feel anxious or stressed about your gambling but still continue to gamble, being unable to stop.
  • You gamble at work or make excuses so that you can continue gambling rather than spend quality time with family or friends.

Why is addiction to gambling more prevalent than it used to be?

Undoubtedly, the rise in gambling addiction has been directly caused by significant changes that have taken place over the last 10 years in the way that people are now able to gamble. Due to the internet, anyone with a mobile phone or laptop can access a gambling website 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Therefore this has been an extremely fast growing mode of gambling.  Huge sums of money have been spent on advertising these internet gambling sites through all forms of media, including sponsoring major sports events, promotional signage on Formula 1 cars and even football clubs, thus bringing gambling to the public’s attention.

Obviously, the gambling industry wishes to make profits from people of any age and gender from every walk of life. The advertising also actively encourages everyone to gamble or “have a go”, even offering cash sums and multiple free games to sign up to play and some of those who are tempted will sadly end up with a gambling addiction.  When you see someone immersed in their mobile phone or on their laptop, the first thought is not that they must be on a gambling website though this may well be the case.

Physiological changes in a gambling addict

When gambling becomes an addiction, as with alcohol or drugs, the act of gambling will initially release a higher dose of Dopamine, a “feel good” hormone, that we find pleasurable. To get that same feeling, we gamble again and whether we win or lose it is more the excitement we get from the act of gambling that we get addicted to, and the increased levels of Dopamine that the body then starts producing.  That pleasurable effect can last from a few seconds to a few minutes depending on the form of gambling we choose, and to get the feeling again we gamble again.

Over time, and that length of time will vary with everyone, the body will recognise that higher levels of Dopamine are being produced and will start to produce less.  We in turn will gamble more to try and get that feeling that we like back again – but the body continues to produce less Dopamine even though we are gambling more frequently.

Gambling addiction and mental health

Medical studies have found that approximately 96% of people with a gambling problem will have at least one other psychiatric disorder. These include depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation as mood disorders and even a substance use disorder such as alcohol or drugs.  There is also a relatively high percentage of people with a gambling problem or gaming addiction who will choose suicide as being their only option, as a way out, in part due to the high financial debt  that their losses have accumulated.

Asking for help for a gambling problem

Denial that there is a problem, or the thought that just “one last bet” is an acceptable way to continue, are two of the biggest hurdles in stopping  getting well. In time we will know that we have a major problem but we will deny the extent of it  and will start to chase a win to cover our losses. We will ignore the fact that our financial situation is continuing to get worse and that we have lost control.  We may be challenged by family and friends, who we continue to ask to lend money to us to feed our addiction and when challenged by them about our behaviour we will verbally attack them, so they will have also experienced our rapid mood swings. 

The only way forward is to ask for help and one of the best ways to help us understand our addictive thinking and behaviour is to arrange a free assessment either over the phone or at the premises of a residential addictions rehab unit such as The Haynes Clinic. An appointment can usually be arranged within 24 hours as it is so important that when someone asks for help that they can be seen by a qualified professional as soon as possible – before they change their mind. Asking for help and getting treatment as soon as possible is critical before the addictive behaviour and thinking gets worse.