Each day, the average adult is given many opportunities to gamble. 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 jackpot for lucky winners of the state lottery. Internet sites run banner ads describing their available games.

For many people, these gambling opportunities are mere games. They may enjoy betting money and striking it big from time to time, but when money runs tight or no games appeal, they can simply stop gambling. Other people may find it difficult, if not impossible, to stop gambling. In fact, they may continue gambling long after the fun in gambling has passed. These people have a gambling addiction.

Defining the Problem

According to the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling, up to two percent of adults who gamble develop a gambling-related addiction.

People who have a gambling addiction may:

  • 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

In the beginning, people who gamble this way may find the activity fun and stimulating. They may enjoy gambling when they’re worried or angry, because the gambling distracts them. Over time, however, the gambling can become less and less fun. Soon, the gambler is simply gambling in order to feel normal. Gamblers may feel a significant amount of stress, depression and guilt about their gambling.

One study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found that people who gambled scored lower in tests of quality of life. People who were already depressed were more likely to gamble than people who were not, meaning that people may have started gambling because they were depressed, and as the addiction deepened, they were driven further into depression.

Combating Misconceptions

When it comes to addiction, gambling is often misunderstood. While some of these misconceptions may be benign, others can undermine the urgency of addiction treatment and some misconceptions can motivate people to simply ignore or avoid symptoms of addiction they see in the ones they love.

For example, some truly believe people can only become addicted to a substance. An alcoholic is addicted to alcohol and a junkie may be addicted to heroin, but a gambling addict has no substance corollary, and therefore that person can’t truly be an addict. The truth is that it’s quite easy to become addicted to gambling. When a person gambles, the body releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine, and the person feels 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 the dopamine, and this is what fuels the addiction. Gambling addiction functions just like drug or alcohol addiction, when viewed from a purely biological standpoint.

Card player with bad handOthers believe that casinos and state lottery games cause addiction. If gambling was outlawed, the theory goes, then the addict would miraculously be cured. This is also a false statement. Just like bars don’t cause alcoholism, casinos don’t cause gambling addiction. Even with no casino available in the world, the addict would still be an addict. The underlying problem is still there.

People also commonly believe that gambling addicts must gamble every day. People who gamble intermittently, or people who gamble without losing money they can’t afford, aren’t considered addicts 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, are gambling addicts.

It doesn’t matter if they gamble once a week, twice a week or only on payday. The drive to gamble is what defines the addiction.

As one final example, some believe that those who have gambling addictions are simply too weak and lazy to resist the temptation. Once again, this isn’t true. As a study in the Harvard publication The Wager has demonstrated, people who develop an addiction to gambling develop an addiction to the dopamine their brains produce when they play the game. They can crave the dopamine, and this powerful craving leads them to play. The addiction, in other words, isn’t rooted in weakness. It is rooted in chemical changes in the brain. Calling an addicted person names is never helpful, and it’s certainly never accurate.

The Effects of Gambling

People who gamble compulsively can do a significant amount of damage to their families. They may:

  • Neglect to feed their children
  • Max out credit accounts
  • Miss payments on the home and cause foreclosure
  • Avoid spending time with the family
  • Participate in fights surrounding money and gambling

Coworkers are often the first to notice a gambling addiction, according to the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling, because people who gamble compulsively may choose to engage in the activities at work, away from the eyes and ears of their family members.

People who work with gamblers may notice that the person:

  • 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
  • Fights 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

For the person who gambles, the consequences of the addiction can also be dire. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, some people who are addicted to gambling develop addictions to drugs and/or alcohol. The addict may also know that gambling isn’t healthy or sustainable, but the addict may be unable to stop. In some cases, the addict might even consider suicide, thinking that this is the only way to make the addiction stop for good.

What Families Can Do

Living with someone who has a gambling addiction may not be easy. In fact, family members may struggle to determine what to say or do to help. Learning all you can about the addiction is a good first step.In fact, the more you know about the addiction, the less anger you might direct toward the addict. Next, it’s important to learn all you can about the damage that has been done to your family’s finances. If your loved one can’t or won’t share this information with you, head right to the bank to find out for yourself.

Once you clearly understand the addiction and you have clear examples of how the addiction is impacting your family, you can turn your focus to helping the addict heal.

A good next step is an intervention. If your situation is very emotional and the person is defiant against quitting, talking with an interventionist could be helpful. They are skilled in helping a person understand the challenges they create and why seeking that gambling high is hurting them and everyone else. The interventionist will help you determine just what to say and how to frame the conversation in words the addict will understand, and motivate that person to get help. If you don’t have someone you can ask to refer you to an interventionists, we have relationships with many who are trusted and certified. We can give you a starting place.

However, if family members aren’t very emotionally charged and can keep a clear and sympathetic tone for the addict, it’s possible, together, you can help the person see they need help. Consider speaking with an interventionist still to help you know which option is right for you. Although this conversation with your loved one may be difficult, it’s often just the sort of medicine the person needs to stop gambling and start living again.

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