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Can Gambling become an addiction?

Updated: Jul 13, 2021

Can gambling become an addiction? You bet it can!

Gamblinglike alcohol and other psychoactive drugs—can develop into an abusive pattern of behavior and can progress into an addiction. Once considered to be “immoral,” “weak-willed” or “irresponsible,” problem gambling is now accepted as a non substance-related disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, psychologists and addiction specialists. However, gambling is still less recognized, understood and accepted by the general public than drug addiction. Because there are no easily detected physical or visible symptoms (like odor, speech impediment, physical impairment), problem gambling often goes unnoticed. It has been called the hidden disease.

Everyone who gambles does not develop a problem. But, as with the prevalent characteristics of other addictions, the behavior of gambling reflects a process that in collusion with a person’s emotional landscape can escalate into being problematic and ultimately end in a dismal life of addiction. The lifestyle of a problem/addicted gambler becomes increasingly focused on gambling to the exclusion and sacrifice of family, career and self. Often a catalyst to this collusion is hidden behind seemingly harmless societal endorsements and opportunities: advertisements for ‘feeling like/being a winner,’ the proliferation of physical and electronic venues, and illusions of being part of ‘the action.’

Clinically, addictive gambling is considered a process addiction: An addiction in which the activity itself (gambling / the wager) produces the euphoria or mood shift. In the case of gambling, money is the substance that allows the person to engage in the process. Historically gamblers have been identified principally as ‘action seekers’ (horse racing, sports betting, gambling tables) or as ‘escape seekers’ (slot machines, lotto, scratch-offs and extending into gaming). However with time, technology and the increase in venues these differences have become more sophisticated and varied, thus blurring the above distinction and increasing the psychological attraction to gamble. Having said that, some personality traits and emotional conditions have been identified as common underpinnings to problem gambling. For example: need for achievement, exhibitionism, need for dominance or control, feelings of disempowerment, trauma and childhood abuse, anxiety and depression, among others. It falls to the task of treatment to ascertain whether these characteristics existed prior to gambling or as a consequence of gambling. Very often, most often, it is a collusion of pre-existing emotional conditions and the properties of the gambling process. But, it can be treated.

GAMBLING DOESN’T NEED TO BE A PROBLEM, BUT IF YOU ARE HAVING A PROBLEM WITH GAMBLING consider talking to a specialist. Gambling problems appear along a behavioral spectrum from recreational gambling to emotional gambling to problematic gambling to addiction. Each stage reflects an increased interaction and enmeshment with a person’s use of gambling in order to change (eg: create, medicate or eliminate) a mood, a feeling or emotional discomfort. The first indication that someone’s gambling is changing from safe to unsafe is the change in why, when and how they gamble: from social recreation and ‘wanting to win’ … to ‘whether I win or lose I just want to gamble’ … to ’even when I am winning I just can’t stop until I run out of money or get more.’ This process reflects: progressive behavioral and emotional compulsions to gamble, continued use in spite of adverse consequence and, loss of control.

The winning or losing of money does not drive problem gambling. The emotional shift obtained from making the wager becomes a more significant drive to continue gambling than does the loss of money. The ‘shift’ is the difference between the joy of having won money to winning signifying that one is “a winner”.

When any of these emotional and cognitive shifts take place, it is perhaps the time to consider meeting with a gambling therapist / specialist to examine your thoughts and feelings about your gambling. In order to evaluate: why and how you are gambling; to consider what changes you want or need to make; and what the options are to help you make those changes. The goal is to avoid experiencing the consequences of problem gambling or to know if your gambling is ‘risky’ -- knowing when to hold and when to discard.

Bob Vietro, MS, LADC, ICGC II / Positive Directions Blog / March 2021

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