What Are the Signs and Symptoms of a Gambling Problem?

Gambling finds its way into our everyday lives. Offices may hold betting pools on the big football game. Grocery stores place scratch-off tickets beneath clear plastic in the checkout line. Billboards along the freeway tout the latest state lottery jackpot. The Internet is at our fingertips and comes with many legal and illegal ways to gamble.

For many people, gambling opportunities are games that can be easily ignored or quit at any time. For may others, gambling becomes much more. It becomes a problem that disrupts finances, health and happiness. So how do you know when it’s just fun or when it’s something more? What are the signs and symptoms of a gambling problem?

Defining Problem Gambling

Problem gambling is just that — a problem. The National Council on Problem Gambling shares that 1% of the population has a gambling addiction while another 2-3%, “do not meet the full diagnostic criteria for pathological gambling, but meet one of more of the criteria and are experiencing problems due to their gambling behavior.”1

People who gamble may find it fun at first, but it can quickly become something more. They may find they do any or all of the following:
  • Try and fail to stop gambling
  • Miss work and school in order to spend more time gambling
  • Use larger and larger amounts of money in order to feel the rush associated with winning
  • Gamble more after losing a large amount of money, also known as “chasing the losses”
  • Use gambling to deal with stress, sadness or depression
  • Borrow or steal in order to gamble
  • Lie about gambling
  • Neglect relationships in order to gamble

Over time gambling can become less and less fun. It can begin to create conflict and consequences in all areas of your life. You may only feel good or “normal” when gambling. You may gamble to relieve stress or anxiety only to find that gambling causes as much stress, depression and guilt as it hides.

The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry reports that people who gamble have a lower quality of life. People who have depression or bipolar disorder are more likely to gamble.2

Gambling, in turn, deepens depression and lowers your ability to manage your mental health.

Combating Misconceptions About Gambling Problems

Gambling addiction is often misunderstood. While some misconceptions may be benign, others cause people to ignore or avoid symptoms of addiction they see in the ones they love. Stigma can undermine the urgency of addiction treatment for problem gambling.

One common misconception is that people can only become addicted to a substance. The truth is that it’s quite easy to become addicted to gambling. When a person gambles, the body releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This causes the person to feel alert, happy and powerful. This is the same neurotransmitter the body releases in response to certain drugs. In both cases the person can become hooked on this rush of dopamine. While dopamine isn’t the only cause of addiction, it certainly fuels it. On a biochemical level, gambling addiction functions just like drug or alcohol addiction.

Another misconception is that casinos and state lottery games cause addiction. Some individuals believe that outlawing gambling would miraculously cure addiction. However just like bars don’t cause alcoholism, casinos don’t cause gambling addiction. The problem is multidimensional and much more complex than just “availability.”

People also commonly believe that a person addicted to gambling must gamble every day. People who gamble intermittently, or people who gamble without losing money they can’t afford, aren’t considered addicted in this model. It’s important to remember that addiction is defined by the severity of the problem, not the frequency. People who are compelled to gamble, who are driven to the activity to the exclusion of other activities, have a gambling problem. It doesn’t matter if they gamble once a week, twice a week or only on payday. The drive to gamble and inability to stop despite consequences, no matter how big or small, is what defines the addiction.

Stigma and assumptions about who gets addicted may be some of the most harmful misconceptions. Some believe that those who have gambling addictions are simply too weak and lazy to resist the temptation.

Once again, this isn’t true. Harvard’s Cambridge Health Alliance explains that addiction stems from chemical changes in the brain.3

It also has social, biological and environmental contributors. It is a mental health issue, not a matter of willpower or choice. Making assumptions about a person with addiction is never helpful, and it’s certainly never accurate.

More Signs and Symptoms of a Gambling Problem

Unfortunately many don’t notice a gambling problem until the negative effects of gambling begin to accumulate.

People who gamble compulsively may begin to harm the health and happiness of their home. Some signs of a gambling problem within the family include the following:
  • Neglecting to feed, cloth or take care of children
  • Maxing out credit accounts
  • Missing payments on bills, utilities, rent or mortgages
  • Avoiding spending time with the family
  • Arguing about money and gambling

At the same time gambling begins to disrupt home life, it can begin to have consequences at work. Coworkers are often some of the first to notice a gambling addiction because people who gamble compulsively may choose to engage in it at work away from the eyes and ears of their family members.

People who work with gamblers may notice that the person does the following:
  • Is often absent for long periods of time
  • Accepts many personal calls
  • Seems distracted
  • Rarely takes vacations and asks for money in lieu of vacation pay
  • Asks for advances
  • Argues with other coworkers about loans
  • Steals or commits fraud against the company
  • Complains about debt
  • Vacillates between extreme happiness and extreme sadness
  • Is eager to participate in office gambling activities such as March Madness pools

Gambling also affects individuals on a personal level. You may develop co-occurring addictions to drugs, alcohol or other behaviors. You’re probably aware that your gambling isn’t healthy or sustainable, but you can’t stop or maybe aren’t even sure that you want to. Your mental health, physical health and social life suffer because of your gambling. So if you, a coworker or a family member recognizes a gambling problem, what’s the next step?

What Families Can Do to Help Treat a Gambling Problem

Living with someone who has a gambling problem isn’t easy. You love the person, but you do not love his or her addiction. You may struggle to determine what to say or do to help. You may wonder if you can help. Learning all you can about mental health and addiction is a good first step.
The more you know about gambling, the more you know your loved one’s addiction isn’t your fault. The more you know it isn’t his or her fault either, the less anger you might direct toward the addict. Once you recognize the signs and symptoms of a gambling problem and recognize it as the serious, but treatable, mental health issue it is, you can turn your focus toward help your loved one heal.

Intervening in a Loved One’s Gambling Problem

A good next step is an intervention. An intervention isn’t a dramatic, angry event. It may be a series of conversations between yourself and the addicted individual. It may be a loving gathering of close friends and family. Talk with a professional interventionist to determine the best approach for your unique situation. Interventionists help you reach through to your loved one and show him or her why seeking that gambling high is creating hurt and harm. The interventionist will help you determine what to say and how to say it so that you have a safe, calm, loving and effective conversation. Talk with a doctor, mental healthcare provider or the professionals here at The Oaks to find a trusted, certified interventionist.

No matter how you start the conversation about a gambling problem, just make sure you start it. Reach out to loved ones. Or if you’re worried about your own gambling, reach out to The Oaks. We’ll help you find the personalized, integrated gambling addiction treatment that will work for you.

By Alanna Hilbink

1“FAQ.” National Council on Problem Gambling. Accessed 13 Nov. 2018.
2Kennedy, Sidney, et al. “Frequency and Correlates of Gambling Problems in Outpatients with Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar Disorder.” Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Sep. 2010.
3 “Biology, Addiction, and Gambling: Dopamine’s Many Roles.” Cambridge Health Alliance. 17 Sep. 2003.