Gambling is an activity where people take part in a game by placing something of monetary value at risk in order to win money or a prize. There are many different forms of gambling and opportunities continue to grow. Some of the most popular include scratch cards, lotteries, bingo, betting on sports or events, as well as playing casino games and arcade machines. It is estimated that over seven billion pounds a year is spent on these activities.
Gambling is not necessarily a bad thing but it can be risky and in some cases can develop into a compulsive habit that people struggle to give up. Compulsive gambling arises out of an uncontrollable urge to experience the natural anticipation and thrill of making large bets and potentially gaining large returns. Even if the outcome is not always positive, some people will be so addicted that they end up driving themselves towards a financial crisis and possibly even poor health and well-being.
Treatment however can prevent a gambling addiction from escalating to this stage, and although it can be difficult for sufferers to admit to their problem and seek help, those who do have a good chance of regaining control of their lives. This page will explore gambling addiction in more detail, highlighting the complications of this type of addiction as well as signs to look out for. It will also provide insight into gambling addiction help in the form of counselling.
What is compulsive gambling?
Gambling addiction is a form of impulse-control disorder where sufferers cannot control their urge to gamble - even when they are aware of the consequences and the hurt it may be causing themselves and their loved ones. They will be constantly seeking the natural high that comes with placing bets, and may often find themselves doing things they never thought they would, like stealing money to fund their habit. A gambling addiction becomes the sole focus of a person's life - they think about it all the time and it is all they want to do, whether they are happy, depressed or broke. Ultimately, even when they know the odds are against them and even when they cannot afford to lose, people with gambling addiction will be unable to take their eye off the next bet.
Unfortunately, rather than confront their problem many people who compulsively gamble will go to great lengths to hide it. Reasons why may vary, but it is often out of fear and shame that their friends and family will discover how much they throw away on their habit. Failing to recognise and get help for a gambling problem can cause a lot of disruption and harm to the lives of the gambler and those around them. People with a gambling addiction will be under a lot of stress - constantly worrying about money - and may experience depression and anxiety. They may also face difficulties in their working life and relationships. Despite this, unlike other addictions such as alcohol or drug addiction, people who compulsively gamble will not have easily visible physical effects. This means you are unlikely to know someone has a gambling problem unless they tell you.
Every day people are given opportunities to gamble, but with the rise of the Internet gambling is now accessible in the comfort and privacy of our own homes. A gambling addiction can develop slowly and steadily, but there may be underlying reasons as to why some are more susceptible than others. Although some people with gambling addiction think they can stop when and if they want to, often this is not the case and professional support is needed to help them overcome their negative habits in order to build a healthier lifestyle and make better choices.
Signs of gambling addiction
Due to being a 'hidden illness' gambling addiction is often misunderstood, and there are a number of misconceptions surrounding the problem. This can add to the difficulty in understanding what it means to be a compulsive gambler, and can even undermine the urgency of treatment. Furthermore, this misunderstanding may cause people to ignore or avoid the signs of gambling addiction in the ones they love.
Evidence suggests up to 2% of adults who gamble will develop a gambling-related addiction, and they will typically display a number of common signs that indicate they have a problem.
People who have a gambling addiction are likely to:
- miss work and school in order to spend more time gambling
- lose interest in usual activities or hobbies like seeing friends or spending time with family
- withdraw from social activity and neglect relationships
- have arguments with friends or family about money and gambling
- lie about their gambling and attempt to hide it from others
- borrow money, sell possessions or steal in order to gamble
- continue to gamble despite negative outcomes
- suffer frequent mood swings.
Compulsive gamblers may also show a change at work - particularly if they use their working environment to engage in their habit away from friends and family. As a result it is often co-workers who are first to spot a gambling addiction.
People who work with compulsive gamblers may notice that the person:
- is absent for long periods of time
- constantly seems distracted
- complains about money problems
- takes a number of personal calls
- rarely takes holiday and asks for the money instead
- asks for advances
- argues with co-workers about loans
- frequent mood swings
- steals or commits fraud against the company
- is eager to get involved in office gambling activities.
Misconceptions of gambling addiction
The signs of gambling addiction can be easily overlooked if misconceptions of the disorder and what it actually involves, persist. A particular misconception is the view that people can only become addicted to a substance and not an activity. A person who is addicted to gambling will not experience the side effects linked to taking a substance, and thus they are not always seen as true addicts. In reality however, when people gamble they experience the same chemical changes in the brain that occur when certain drugs are taken. The activity of gambling triggers the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This makes a person feel alert, powerful and happy, creating a natural 'high'. As a result, dopamine fuels an addiction - whether it is drug, alcohol or gambling related - because people will crave the high it brings.
Another common misconception of compulsive gambling is that you have to gamble every day to be addicted. In this model, people who gamble infrequently or those who gamble without losing money they can’t afford are not considered addicts. Yet an addiction is defined by the severity of the problem rather than the frequency of it. It is the drive to gamble - the compulsion to put the habit before important everyday activities and relationships - that puts a person in the addicted category, even if they only gamble once a week or once a month.
Do you have a gambling addiction?
In many cases, it is the compulsive gambler themselves that will notice the signs of gambling addiction, but many will attempt to ignore them despite knowing their habit is unhealthy and not sustainable. Others however may be completely unaware that their gambling has escalated until they are hit with a financial crisis that makes them consider the consequences and severity of their habit. Often people will engage in gambling as a way to escape stress and personal problems. In the beginning it can be fun and stimulating, and a handy distraction from the pressures of everyday life. Yet over time gambling can lose its appeal and can soon become something people do to feel normal. Ironically, although unpleasant feelings such as stress, loneliness and anxiety often drive people to compulsively gamble, many will be driven into further depression and emotional discomfort as their addiction worsens.
Therefore, recognising and acknowledging the signs of gambling addiction is vital if a sufferer wants to prevent their disorder from getting worse. If you are worried that you have a gambling problem, take a look at the following signs which are common in those who compulsively gamble:
- Are you spending more time and money on gambling than you can afford?
- Are you finding it hard to manage or stop your gambling?
- Are you increasingly taking larger risks to satisfy your urge to gamble?
- Are you losing interest in usual activities and hobbies?
- Is gambling constantly on your mind?
- Do you gamble until all of your money is gone?
- Are you feeling constantly anxious, irritable, guilty or depressed?
- Do you feel the need to be secretive and lie about your gambling?
- Do you gamble even when you don't have the money?
- Have family and friends expressed their concerns?
If you can relate to a number of these, you should consider seeking help. Opening up to your friends and family about your addiction might be a good start, and they will help you to become aware of the impact compulsive gambling can have on your life. This awareness may be the kick-start you need to turn things around. Denial keeps the problem going but it is never too late to make changes and regain control. Just remember that it is not a sign of weakness asking for help and there is a supportive network of health professionals available who can provide effective treatment to promote your recovery.
Treatment for gambling addiction
Treatment for gambling addiction is centred mainly on counselling (talking therapies) such as cognitive behavioural therapy which can help people to understand their addiction and learn new, sustainable ways of managing their urge to gamble. Medication can also be provided for people whose gambling problem is linked to mental health issues such as depression, while additional treatment will be required to tackle substance abuse if this is a further concern. Significantly, very few cases of gambling addiction are isolated - many people with a gambling problem will also be addicted to alcohol or drugs. Therefore health professionals providing treatment will look to address a range of issues that may be underlying a person's compulsion to misuse substances and gamble.
Each person will have their own unique gambling problem, and so treatment is tailored to ensure it meets the individual needs of each client. A key aspect that counselling focuses on is the triggers of the addiction - what it is that compels people to compulsively gamble even when they are aware of the negative consequences. Understanding the reason behind gambling urges - whether it's to numb unpleasant feelings, solve money problems, escape stress or simply out of boredom or loneliness - can help people to focus on healthier and more constructive ways of coping, without having to resort to gambling. Cognitive behavioural therapy is ultimately designed to guide clients through a process of change - helping them to rewire their thoughts and beliefs and encouraging them to aspire towards a future free from their addiction.
Overcoming a gambling addiction can be a tough process, and extra support may be needed following counselling to ensure the recovery is maintained. Treatment however - particularly cognitive behavioural therapy - has proven highly successful in providing people with alternative means of dealing with their problems. It equips them with the necessary tools and support to reframe thoughts and behaviours for the long-term.
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
Whilst there are currently no official rules and regulations in position to stipulate what level of training and experience a counsellor dealing with gambling addiction needs, we do recommend that you check your therapist is experienced in the area for which you are seeking help.
There are several accredited courses, qualifications and workshops available to counsellors that can improve their knowledge of a particular area, so for peace of mind you may wish to check to see if they have had further training in matters of addiction.
In regards to psychological treatment NHS Choices suggest cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to be used as tool to break the habit of addiction.
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