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Gambling Addiction and Problem Gambling

How to Stop Gambling and Regain Control of Your Life

Man gambling screen reflected

It can happen to anyone from any walk of life: Your gambling goes from a fun, harmless diversion to an unhealthy obsession with serious consequences. Whether you bet on sports, scratch cards, roulette, poker, or slots—in a casino, at the track, or online—a gambling problem can strain your relationships, interfere with work, and lead to financial disaster. You may even do things you never thought you would, like running up huge debts or even stealing money to gamble. Although it can feel like you’re unable to stop, there are plenty of things you can do to overcome a gambling problem, repair your relationships and finances, and finally regain control of your life.

What is gambling addiction and problem gambling?

Gambling addiction—also known as pathological gambling, compulsive gambling or gambling disorder—is an impulse-control disorder. If you’re a compulsive gambler, you can’t control the impulse to gamble, even when it has negative consequences for you or your loved ones. You’ll gamble whether you’re up or down, broke or flush, and you’ll keep gambling regardless of the consequences—even when you know that the odds are against you or you can’t afford to lose.

Of course, you can also have a gambling problem without being totally out of control. Problem gambling is any gambling behavior that disrupts your life. If you’re preoccupied with gambling, spending more and more time and money on it, chasing losses, or gambling despite serious consequences in your life, you have a gambling problem.

A gambling addiction or problem is often associated with other behavior or mood disorders. Many problem gamblers also suffer with substance abuse issues, unmanaged ADHD, stress, depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. To overcome your gambling problems, you’ll also need to address these and any other underlying causes as well. The first step is to separate the myths from the facts about gambling problems:

Myths & Facts about Gambling Problems

Myth: You have to gamble every day to be a problem gambler.

Fact: A problem gambler may gamble frequently or infrequently. Gambling is a problem if it causes problems.

Myth: Problem gambling is not really a problem if the gambler can afford it.

Fact: Problems caused by excessive gambling are not just financial. Too much time spent on gambling can also lead to relationship and legal problems, job loss, mental health problems including depression and anxiety, and even suicide.

Myth: Having a gambling problem is just a case of being weak-willed, irresponsible, or unintelligent.

Fact: Gambling problems affect people of all levels of intelligence and all backgrounds. Previously responsible and strong-willed people are just as likely to develop a gambling problem as anyone else.

Myth: Partners of problem gamblers often drive their loved ones to gamble.

Fact: Problem gamblers often try to rationalize their behavior. Blaming others is one way to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, including what is needed to overcome the problem.

Myth: If a problem gambler builds up a debt, you should help them take care of it.

Fact: Quick fix solutions may appear to be the right thing to do. However, bailing the gambler out of debt may actually make matters worse by enabling their gambling problems to continue.

Gambling addiction signs and symptoms

Gambling addiction is sometimes referred to as a "hidden illness" because there are no obvious physical signs or symptoms like there are in drug or alcohol addiction. Problem gamblers also typically deny or minimize the problem—even to themselves. However, you may have a gambling problem if you:

Feel the need to be secretive about your gambling. You might gamble in secret or lie about how much you gamble, feeling others won’t understand or that you will surprise them with a big win.

Have trouble controlling your gambling. Once you start gambling, can you walk away? Or are you compelled to gamble until you’ve spent your last dollar, upping your bets in a bid to win lost money back?

Gamble even when you don’t have the money. You may gamble until you’ve spent your last dollar, and then move on to money you don’t have—money to pay bills, credit cards, or things for your children. You may feel pushed to borrow, sell, or even steal things for gambling money.

Have family and friends worried about you. Denial keeps problem gambling going. If friends and family are worried, listen to them carefully. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help. Many older gamblers are reluctant to reach out to their adult children if they've gambled away their inheritance, but it's never too late to make changes for the better.

Self-help for gambling problems

The biggest step to overcoming a gambling addiction is realizing that you have a problem. It takes tremendous strength and courage to own up to this, especially if you have lost a lot of money and strained or broken relationships along the way. Don’t despair, and don’t try to go it alone. Many others have been in your shoes and have been able to break the habit and rebuild their lives. You can, too.

Learn to relieve unpleasant feelings in healthier ways. Do you gamble when you’re lonely or bored? Or after a stressful day at work or following an argument with your spouse? Gambling may be a way to self-soothe unpleasant emotions, unwind, or socialize. But there are healthier and more effective ways of managing your moods and relieving boredom, such as exercising, spending time with friends who don’t gamble, taking up new hobbies, or practicing relaxation techniques.

Strengthen your support network. It’s tough to battle any addiction without support, so reach out to friends and family. If your support network is limited, there are ways to make new friends without relying on visiting casinos or gambling online. Try reaching out to colleagues at work, joining a sports team or book club, enrolling in an education class, or volunteering for a good cause.

Join a peer support group. Gamblers Anonymous, for example, is a twelve-step recovery program patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous. A key part of the program is finding a sponsor, a former gambler who has experience remaining free from addiction and can provide you invaluable guidance and support.

Seek help for underlying mood disorders. Depression, stress, substance abuse, or anxiety can both trigger gambling problems and be made worse by compulsive gambling. Even when gambling is no longer a part of your life, these problems will still remain, so it’s important to address them.

How to stop gambling for good

For many problem gamblers, it’s not quitting gambling that’s the biggest challenge, but rather staying in recovery—making a permanent commitment to stay away from gambling. The Internet has made gambling far more accessible and, therefore, harder for recovering addicts to avoid relapse. Online casinos and bookmakers are open all day, every day for anyone with a smartphone or access to a computer. But maintaining recovery from gambling addiction or problem gambling is still possible if you surround yourself with people to whom you’re accountable, avoid tempting environments and websites, give up control of your finances (at least at first), and find healthier activities to replace gambling in your life.

Making healthier choices

One way to stop gambling is to remove the elements necessary for gambling to occur in your life and replace them with healthier choices. The four elements needed for gambling to continue are:

A decision: For gambling to happen, you need to make the decision to gamble. If you have an urge: stop what you are doing and call someone, think about the consequences to your actions, tell yourself to stop thinking about gambling, and find something else to do immediately.

Money: Gambling cannot occur without money. Get rid of your credit cards, let someone else be in charge of your money, have the bank make automatic payments for you, close online betting accounts, and keep only a limited amount of cash on you.

Time: Even online gambling cannot occur if you don’t have the time. Schedule enjoyable recreational time for yourself that has nothing to do with gambling. If you’re gambling on your smartphone, find other ways to fill the quiet moments during your day.

A game: Without a game or activity to bet on there is no opportunity to gamble. Don’t put yourself in tempting environments. Tell gambling establishments you frequent that you have a gambling problem and ask them to restrict you from entering. Remove gambling apps and block gambling sites on your smartphone and computer.

Finding alternatives to gambling

Maintaining recovery from gambling addiction depends a lot on finding alternative behaviors you can substitute for gambling. Some examples include:

Reason for gambling Sample substitute behaviors

To provide excitement, get a rush of adrenaline

Sport or a challenging hobby, such as mountain biking, rock climbing, or Go Kart racing

To be more social, overcome shyness or isolation

Counseling, enroll in a public speaking class, join a social group, connect with family and friends, volunteer, find new friends

To numb unpleasant feelings, not think about problems

Try therapy or use HelpGuide’s free Emotional Intelligence toolkit

Boredom or loneliness

Find something you’re passionate about such as art, music, sports, or books and then find others with the same interests

To relax after a stressful day

As little as 15 minutes of daily exercise can relieve stress. Or deep breathing, meditation, or massage

To solve money problems

The odds are always stacked against you so it’s far better to seek help with debts from a credit counselor

Dealing with gambling cravings

Feeling the urge to gamble is normal, but as you build healthier choices and a strong support network, resisting cravings will become easier. When a gambling craving strikes:

Avoid isolation. Call a trusted family member, meet a friend for coffee, or go to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting.

Postpone gambling. Tell yourself that you’ll wait 5 minutes, fifteen minutes, or an hour. As you wait, the urge to gamble may pass or become weak enough to resist.

Visualize what will happen if you give in to the urge to gamble. Think about how you’ll feel after all your money is gone and you’ve disappointed yourself and your family again.

Distract yourself with another activity, such as going to the gym, watching a movie, or practicing a relaxation exercise for gambling cravings.

Coping with lapses

If you aren’t able to resist the gambling craving, don’t be too hard on yourself or use it as an excuse to give up. Overcoming a gambling addiction is a tough process. You may slip from time to time; the important thing is to learn from your mistakes and continue working towards recovery.

Gambling addiction treatment

Overcoming a gambling problem is never easy and seeking professional treatment doesn’t mean that you’re weak in some way or can’t handle your problems. But it’s important to remember that every gambler is unique so you need a recovery program tailored specifically to your needs and situation. Talk to your doctor or mental health professional about different treatment options, including:

Inpatient or residential treatment and rehab programs. These are aimed at those with severe gambling addiction who are unable to avoid gambling without round-the-clock support.

Treatment for underlying conditions contributing to your compulsive gambling, including substance abuse or mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, OCD, or ADHD. This could include therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes. Problem gambling can sometimes be a symptom of bipolar disorder, so your doctor or therapist may need to rule this out before making a diagnosis.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy. CBT for gambling addiction focuses on changing unhealthy gambling behaviors and thoughts, such as rationalizations and false beliefs. It can also teach you how to fight gambling urges and solve financial, work, and relationship problems caused by problem gambling. Therapy can provide you with the tools for coping with your addiction that will last a lifetime.

Family therapy and marriage, career, and credit counseling. These can help you work through the specific issues that have been created by your problem gambling and lay the foundation for repairing your relationships and finances.

How to help someone stop gambling

If your loved one has a gambling problem, you likely have many conflicting emotions. You may have spent a lot of time and energy trying to keep your loved one from gambling or having to cover for them. At the same time, you might be furious at your loved one for gambling again and tired of trying to keep up the charade. Your loved one may have borrowed or even stolen money with no way to pay it back. They may have sold family possessions or run up huge debts on joint credit cards.

While compulsive and problem gamblers need the support of their family and friends to help them in their struggle to stop gambling, the decision to quit has to be theirs. As much as you may want to, and as hard as it is seeing the effects, you cannot make someone stop gambling. However, you can encourage them to seek help, support them in their efforts, protect yourself, and take any talk of suicide seriously.

Preventing suicide in problem gamblers

When faced with the consequences of their actions, problem gamblers can suffer a crushing drop in self-esteem. This is one reason why there is a high rate of suicide among compulsive gamblers. If you suspect your loved one is feeling suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S. at 1-800-273-8255 or visit Befrienders Worldwide to find a suicide helpline in your country.

Four tips for family members:

  1. Start by helping yourself. You have a right to protect yourself emotionally and financially. Don’t blame yourself for the gambler’s problems or let his or her addiction dominate your life. Ignoring your own needs can be a recipe for burnout.
  2. Don’t go it alone. It can feel so overwhelming coping with a loved one’s gambling addiction that it may seem easier to rationalize their requests "this one last time." Or you might feel ashamed, feeling like you are the only one who has problems like this. Reaching out for support will make you realize that many families have struggled with this problem.
  3. Set boundaries in managing money. To ensure the gambler stays accountable and to prevent relapse, consider taking over the family finances. However, this does not mean you are responsible for micromanaging the problem gambler’s impulses to gamble. Your first responsibilities are to ensure that your own finances and credit are not at risk.
  4. Consider how you will handle requests for money. Problem gamblers often become very good at asking for money, either directly or indirectly. They may use pleading, manipulation, or even threats to get it. It takes practice to ensure you are not enabling your loved one’s gambling addiction.
Do's and Don'ts for partners of problem gamblers
Do...
  • Seek the support of others with similar problems; attend a self-help group for families such as Gam-Anon
  • Explain problem gambling to the children
  • Recognize your partner's good qualities
  • Remain calm when speaking to your partner about their gambling and its consequences
  • Let your partner know that you are seeking help for your own sake because of the way gambling affects you and the family
  • Understand the need for treatment of problem gambling despite the time it may involve
  • Take control of family finances; review bank and credit card statements
Don't...
  • Preach, lecture, or allow yourself to lose control of your anger
  • Make threats or issue ultimatums unless you intend to carry them out
  • Exclude the gambler from family life and activities
  • Expect immediate recovery, or that all problems will be resolved when the gambling stops
  • Bail out the gambler
  • Cover-up or deny the existence of the problem to yourself, the family, or others

Source: Dept. of Health & Addiction Services

Recommended reading

The National Council on Problem Gambling Helpline – Offers a confidential, 24-hour helpline for problem gamblers or their family members in the U.S. Call 1-800-522-4700. (NCPG)

Gamblers Anonymous – Twelve-step Gamblers Anonymous program, an international support network of meetings to assist people who have a gambling problem. Gam-Anon for the problem gambler's spouse, family members, or close friends. (Gamblers Anonymous)

Gamcare – Offers support, information, and advice for those with a gambling problem in the UK. Call the helpline 0845 6000 133. (Gamcare)

Gambling Help Online – Provides 24-hour helpline in Australia for counseling, information, and referrals. Call 1800 858 858. (Gambling Help Online)

Canadian Resources for Those Affected by Problem Gambling – Find help and information on problem gambling in your area of Canada. (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health)

What Is Problem Gambling? – Learn about the gambling continuum and the key differences between recreational gambling and problem gambling. (British Columbia Responsible & Problem Gambling Program)

Freedom from Problem Gambling (PDF)   – Self-help workbook for compulsive gamblers, with tips on how to avoid relapse and fight gambling urges. (UCLA Gambling Studies Program and California Department of Public Health)

Choosing a Treatment Facility – Learn what treatments are appropriate for problem gambling and what questions you should ask when look at facilities. (National Council on Problem Gambling)

Problem Gamblers and their Finances (PDF) – In-depth guide for treatment professionals on how to help a problem gambler cope with financial problems and pressures. (National Endowment for Financial Education)

Help for Family, Friends, Employers, and Co-Workers – Learn how gambling addiction affects family and friends and what you can do to address the problem. (Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services)

Personal Financial Strategies for the Loved Ones of Problem Gamblers (PDF) – Designed to help families deal with personal financial issues due to a loved one's problem gambling. (National Council on Problem Gambling)

Authors: Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Melinda Smith, M.A., and Lawrence Robinson. Last updated: September 2018.

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