Compulsive Gambling

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Compulsive gambling, also known as gambling disorder, refers to the irresistible urge to continue gambling, regardless of the negative impact it has on one’s life. It involves risking something of value in the hope of gaining something of even greater worth.

Similar to drugs or alcohol, gambling can trigger the brain’s reward system, leading to addiction. Individuals with compulsive gambling problems may find themselves constantly chasing bets, depleting their savings, and accumulating debts. They might hide their behavior and resort to theft or fraud to fuel their addiction.

Compulsive gambling is a severe condition that can wreak havoc on lives. Although challenging, professional treatment has helped many people overcome their struggles with compulsive gambling.

Recognizing the Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of compulsive gambling (gambling disorder) can include:

  • Being preoccupied with gambling, such as constantly planning gambling activities and seeking ways to obtain more gambling money
  • Requiring increasing amounts of money to achieve the same thrill from gambling
  • Attempting to control, cut back, or quit gambling without success
  • Feeling restless or irritable when attempting to cut down on gambling
  • Gambling to escape problems or cope with feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, or depression
  • Chasing losses by gambling more to recoup money
  • Lying to conceal the extent of one’s gambling from family and others
  • Compromising important relationships, work, education, or job opportunities due to gambling
  • Seeking financial assistance from others due to gambling-related money troubles

While most casual gamblers stop when they lose or set limits on their losses, those with a compulsive gambling problem feel compelled to continue playing to recover their losses, leading to a destructive pattern over time. Some individuals may resort to theft or fraud to fund their gambling.

Although periods of remission are possible, untreated compulsive gambling often leads to persistent struggles.

Seeking Help

If family members, friends, or co-workers have expressed concerns about your gambling behavior, it’s essential to consider their worries. Denial is a common aspect of compulsive or addictive behavior, making it challenging to recognize the problem on your own.

Causes and Risk Factors

The exact causes of compulsive gambling remain unclear. Like many disorders, it likely results from a combination of biological, genetic, and environmental factors.

Factors associated with compulsive gambling:

  • Mental health issues: Substance misuse problems, personality disorders, depression, or anxiety
  • Age: More common in younger and middle-aged individuals, but it can also affect older adults
  • Sex: More prevalent in men, while women tend to start later in life and may become addicted more quickly
  • Family or friend influence: Having a gambling problem within the family or peer group increases the risk
  • Medications: Certain drugs used for Parkinson’s disease and restless legs syndrome may lead to compulsive behaviors, including gambling
  • Personality characteristics: Being highly competitive, impulsive, restless, or easily bored may elevate the risk of compulsive gambling

Possible Complications

Compulsive gambling can result in profound and long-lasting consequences, such as:

  • Relationship problems
  • Financial issues, including bankruptcy
  • Legal troubles or imprisonment
  • Poor work performance or job loss
  • Declining overall health
  • Suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, or completed suicide

Preventing Compulsive Gambling

While there’s no guaranteed way to prevent gambling problems, targeted educational programs for individuals and groups at higher risk may be beneficial.

If you have risk factors for compulsive gambling, consider avoiding all forms of gambling, as well as people and places associated with gambling. Seeking treatment at the first sign of a problem can help prevent the situation from worsening.

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If you suspect that you may have a gambling problem, it’s essential to talk with your healthcare provider for an evaluation or seek help from a mental health professional.

To assess your gambling habits, your healthcare provider or mental health professional will likely:

  • Ask questions related to your gambling habits, and may request permission to speak with family members or friends, while ensuring confidentiality.
  • Review your medical information to identify any potential side effects of medications that could lead to compulsive behaviors, including gambling.
  • Conduct a mental health assessment, including questions about your symptoms, thoughts, feelings, and behavior patterns associated with gambling. You may also be evaluated for other mental health disorders linked to excessive gambling.


Addressing compulsive gambling can be challenging, as many individuals find it difficult to admit they have a problem. However, a crucial aspect of treatment is acknowledging the issue.

The treatment for compulsive gambling may include various approaches:

  • Therapy: Behavioral therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are often helpful. Behavioral therapy exposes you to the behavior you wish to change and teaches skills to reduce the urge to gamble. Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on replacing unhealthy beliefs with positive ones. Family therapy may also be beneficial.
  • Medications: Antidepressants and mood stabilizers can be used to treat underlying issues that often coexist with compulsive gambling, such as bipolar disorder, depression, or anxiety. Some antidepressants may also help reduce gambling behavior. Narcotic antagonists, which are used to treat substance misuse, may be effective in treating compulsive gambling.
  • Self-help groups: Engaging with others who have experienced gambling problems can be a valuable part of treatment. Self-help groups like Gamblers Anonymous and similar resources may offer support and encouragement.

Depending on individual needs and resources, treatment for compulsive gambling can take the form of an outpatient program, inpatient program, residential treatment program, structured internet-based programs, or telephone visits with a mental health professional. Treatment for any coexisting substance misuse, depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues may also be integrated into the plan.

Relapse Prevention

Despite treatment, there is a risk of relapse, especially if you spend time with people who gamble or find yourself in gambling environments. If you sense that you might start gambling again, contacting your mental health provider or sponsor immediately can help prevent a relapse.

Coping and Support

Resisting the urge of compulsive gambling can be challenging, but some recovery skills can help, including:

  • Stay focused on your No. 1 goal: Not to gamble.
  • Acknowledge that gambling is too risky and abstain from it altogether. One bet usually leads to more, perpetuating the cycle.
  • Seek help and support, as willpower alone may not be sufficient. Involve a family member or friend to encourage you in following your treatment plan.
  • Avoid situations that trigger your urge to gamble.

Family members of individuals with a compulsive gambling problem may also benefit from counseling, even if the affected person is unwilling to participate in therapy.

Preparing for Your Appointment

If you’ve decided to seek help for compulsive gambling, you’ve already taken an important step.

Before your appointment, prepare by making a list of:

  • All the feelings you’re experiencing, even if they don’t seem directly related to your gambling problem. Note any triggers, attempts to resist gambling urges, and the impact of gambling on your life.
  • Key personal information, including any significant stressors or recent life changes.
  • All medications, supplements, and dosages you’re currently taking.
  • Other physical or mental health issues you have, along with any treatments you’ve received.
  • Questions to make the most of your appointment time.

Questions to Ask

During your appointment, consider asking your provider questions such as:

  • What’s the best approach to treating my gambling problem?
  • Are there alternative treatment options to consider?
  • Should I see a psychiatrist, psychologist, addiction counselor, or other mental health professional?
  • Will my insurance cover the costs of these treatments?
  • Can I receive outpatient treatment, or would inpatient care be necessary?

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