Characterizing Gambling Addiction

Most people understand the basic premise of gambling. For example, someone goes to a casino to enjoy the thrill of betting and winning money, and then they go home. Right? For some it is that simple. However, for many others it becomes more than just a roll of the dice every now and then, or the occasional poker game here and there. What if the poker games become habitual, or that one blackjack game turns into two, three, or four hours? What if the person starts going two, three, four times a week? What constitutes gambling addiction?

The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) provides some important guidance in this area by explaining problem gambling – or gambling addiction in general – as an inclusive set of behavioral patterns that compromise or otherwise damage personal, family, and professional or vocational endeavors. See below for some of the signs and symptoms.

Additionally, there is a clinical distinction that should be noted. Individuals whose problem gambling is more severe would be clinically classified as having a pathological gambling addiction.

Suffice it to say that the house almost invariably wins and the gambling addict does not understand this or blatantly disregards the statistical truth — and by the time they do understand, if ever, the damage is done. There seems to be a critical failure to understand how their gambling addiction correlates to personal problems, damage to relationships, and failures at work or elsewhere. Those who are addicted don’t seem to understand that they have lost their independence.

Gambling Addiction: Key Numbers & Statistics

% of U.S. Adults who have gambled at least once in their lifetime: 80%
% of U.S. Adults who have gambled at least once in a given year: 60%
% of U.S. population considered to have met the clinical criteria for Problem Gambling: 5%
% of U.S. population considered to have met the clinical criteria for Pathological Gambling: 1%

How Gambling Affects the Brain

We now understand from some recent studies that there are parts of the brain that tend to respond to the ideas of winning and losing money. During these gambling experiments, those brains with gambling problems (and while gambling) tended to respond in similar ways to brains responding to the introduction of highly addictive substances like cocaine and morphine.

Studies have revealed that the right hemisphere of the brain tends to be most involved in the process of winning money and the left hemisphere in losing money. Additionally, there are diverse variations in response when the monetary totals at risk are lower vs. higher, and yet more variations on response just following winning or losing.

In the future, locating the correct regions of the brain and mapping the neural circuits that process the anticipation of rewards – whether associated with drug abuse OR gambling because brain affects are similar – may help us develop new medications to block these circuits and provide new treatment approaches. In the interim, gambling addiction can still be fought and controlled using tested and successful methods for addiction rehabilitation. My Addiction Physician can help you or your loved ones to address problem gambling and gambling addiction. We can help you regain control and restore independence!

Signs & Symptoms of Problem Gambling / Addiction

Gambling addiction has been called a ‘hidden illness’ by some because the physical symptoms and signs may not be nearly as apparent as in those with drug and alcohol addictions. Problem gamblers do, however, exhibit similar behaviors to substance addicted individuals. For instance, problem gamblers often try to minimize or outright deny that a problem even exists. They may also do things to hide their gambling problems. Much like individuals coping with substance abuse and addiction, problem gamblers may fall away from friends and family, sneak about to mask the problem, and lie about things to mislead others.

The NCPG outlines some of the essential components to problem gambling and gambling addiction. We can use these as a baseline for indicating signs and symptoms that a person may have some type of gambling problem:

  • A growing preoccupation with gambling
  • A need to gamble more and more frequently
  • Restlessness or irritability when trying to stop gambling
  • Chasing losses in an attempt to recover said losses
  • Loss of control – continuing to gamble in spite of increasing, serious, negative consequences.

Problem Gambling: What are the Risks?

Without a doubt, problem gambling and gambling addiction can lead the addicted individual down a road to ruin. Many things are at stake, including personal or family finances, social and family relationships, health and peace of mind… the list is long. Just because gambling is not a substance, per se, it doesn’t mean that personal health is not at stake!

Problem gamblers deal with a lot of stress, which can have far reaching effects on the body and mind. Additionally, pathological gamblers may not address the basics like hygiene and nutrient intake for long periods of time. It is also possible, as studies have shown, that a person with a gambling problems is far more likely to have substance abuse problems. Indeed, all addictions are driven by similar things.

Finally, it is also true that suicide — whether we are talking about suicide ideation (thinking about it or desiring it), suicide attempts, or realized suicides — is far more prevalent among those individuals with problem gambling or gambling addiction. These risks simply cannot be ignored.

Treatment for Problem Gambling & Addiction

Recovery is possible and independence must be restored to the gambling addicted individual. The best approach we have found involves a multi-disciplinary approach that where there’s a solid plan, experienced guidance, sufficient behavioral modification and time. Every gambler is unique and so needs a recovery program tailored specifically to him or her. All addictions, irregardless of substance, is loss of control and continued use to despite harm!

What works for one gambler won’t necessarily work for you, but it is a fact that ALL addictions are driven by negative thoughts and too few gratifications in life. The biggest step in treatment is realizing you have a problem with gambling. For effective gambling addiction treatment it comes down to how you protect your brain from negative thoughts, identify and ease negative thought; and how you increase positive thoughts. It takes tremendous strength and courage to own up to this but My Addiction Physician can help you.


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