Those with gambling problems may bet in a casino, online, or both. They may place wagers on their favorite sports teams, Texas Hold ’em hands, the roll of the craps dice, or the spin of a roulette wheel. No matter what they play or where they play it, chronic gambling can destroy relationships, lead to job loss, and result in financial ruin. This affects not only the individual but their family members and friends, as well.
Some individuals progress to the point of crossing lines they never thought they would, such as stealing money from friends and family to bet with or pay off their gambling debts. When they run out of options, it is not unusual for friends or family to find themselves paying off debts either because they are legally responsible, or because they wish to save the person from embarrassment, incarceration, or financial ruin.
These negative consequences will often destroy the person’s closest relationships — leaving them alone and isolated, a condition that further exacerbates their addiction as they seek companionship and excitement to escape their problems. Their judgment becomes impaired such that they don’t see that increasing their gambling behavior is not a rational coping strategy and will only lead to further devastation.
Despite the serious nature of the problem, there is hope. There are many treatment programs available, based on a strong, empirical foundation and proven by positive treatment outcomes. Treatment programs can help the person, as well as their family members and loved ones individuals, regain control of their lives, restore friendships and family bonds, and allow them to take care of their financial responsibilities and compensate others as appropriate.
As with all addictions, however, the first step is recognizing that a problem exists. Often, since the individual is under the spell of the addiction, it is up to people who care about the person to help make that happen.
Understanding Gambling Addiction and Problem Gambling
When conceptualizing addictions most people think only of drugs and alcohol, yet the latest view of these disorders includes other addictions, called process or behavioral addictions. This type of addiction can create equal devastation in one’s life and the lives of loved ones as that which results from substance abuse and addiction. This new way of understanding problem gambling reflects investigations demonstrating that there are numerous similarities between substance addictions and gambling addiction some of which include:
- How they are expressed
- Causal factors found within brain functions
- Other disorders frequently co-occur with the addiction
- Similar physiological reactions related to the disorders are similar
- Similar treament methods that are effective for alleviating symptoms
- The development of tolerance
- The experience of withdrawal syndrome when the addictive habit is stopped
Recognition of these commonalities may help people with gambling disorder get the most appropriate treatment and services, and can help others better understand the challenges that individuals face in overcoming this disorder. Similar to substance abuse, while the first few times an individual gambles there doesn’t seem to be a need to continue, once the addiction has taken hold, it is no longer a matter of simply choosing to stop. There are changes that occur in the individual’s brain, especially in relation to stimulation of the brains pleasure and reward centers that set up strong emotional withdrawal symptoms should the individual attempt to quit. Efforts to cut back or stop gambling may result in severe depression.
Gambling addiction results in the inability to gain control over the urge to gamble even when the individual is aware it is hurting them and their loved ones in multiple ways. Gambling becomes all the person can think about and it is the only activity they want to engage in. This extreme focus on the habit can result in the person losing their job, their friends, their financial resources and can lead to the inability to meet their daily responsibilities. Those with a gambling addiction continue to bet increasing amounts of money regardless of whether they are winning or losing, have the money to bet or not, or are euphoric or depressed. None of the factors which control our behaviors normally through feedback that something needs to be altered affects those with the urge to gamble. Even those who end up incarcerated find ways to gamble while behind bars.
Those who gamble regularly may still have a problem even if they’re not fully dependent on the behavior such that they’ve developed tolerance and the potential for withdrawal syndrome. They do not have to be completely out of control of the behavior for gambling to wreak havoc on their life and the lives of those around them. When gambling disrupts an individual’s life to the degree they aren’t functioning normally in day to day activities, they are neglecting responsibilities, and it is causing them or others distress, gambling is considered a problem.
If someone seems consumed by gambling, spends increasing amounts of time, effort and money engaging in the behavior, betting larger sums the more they lose to try to reclaim the deficit, or gambles despite severe consequences for themselves and others, they likely have a gambling addiction. There are also a number of other more specific signs that you can look for to determine if someone you love may be addicted to gambling.
Signs that Someone May Have a Gambling Problem or Addiction
It is often more difficulty to recognize the specific signs of a gambling addiction compared to a substance abuse addiction as with gambling problems the signs could be due to a number of causes, some of them legitimate. If you are aware of the most common warning signs of gambling addiction you can detect the problem earlier and seek out expert advice regarding the best course of action to take to increase the likelihood of recovery. These signs incorporate financial, scheduling and mood related indicators.
- Money disappearing from wallets, purses, accounts or other investments that don’t belong to the individual but to which they can gain access.
- Valuable items missing from the homes of friends and relatives
- Despite being employed the individual is suddenly always short of money when they weren’t previously
- Constantly borrowing money from others but never seeming to be able to pay them back, while providing a variety of excuses as to why they can’t do so
- Taking our numerous loans simultaneously
- Hiding financial information, records or paystubs
- Frequent inability to pay bills, disconnection warnings or service disruptions for failure to pay
- Only limited food in the house and the items are not ingredient for meals but more snack-like requiring little to no preparation
Mood and Behavioral Signs
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Poor work performance
- Becoming nervous, agitated, irritable or frustrated for no perceptible reason
- Mentioning feelings of hopelessness, helplessness over their own lives, depression, or suicidal thoughts though without relating them to anything specific (e.g. gambling problems)
- Notable alterations in personality
- Decreased sleep and appetite
- Changes in sexual desire or performance
- Controlling, manipulative, or threatening behavior aimed at obtaining money from others
- Using falsehoods or charm to influence others behaviors and willingness to give them money or get them out of trouble
- Increasing amounts of time spent gambling either at a physical casino or online
- Hiding reasons for unexplained absenteeism
- Tardiness for even important commitments
- Frequently calling in sick or taking unplanned days off
- Simple errands take an inexplicable amount of time (e.g. buying milk from a nearby store takes 3 hours)
- Time set aside for simple tasks is unreasonable and the individual may return having not completed the task in question
Are You a Compulsive Gambler?
Take this quiz for yourself or your loved one to determine if there might be a problem. Answer all 20 questions below. Then visit the Gamblers Anonymous website for comments regarding your answers.
Final Thoughts and Conclusions
It may seem like gambling is an activity people choose to engage in — and that they are just being irresponsible when the behavior begins to cause problems. However, problem gambling is a serious illness, just like other substance-abuse addictions. It is important to keep in mind that once the addictive process has been established, the individual likely has little control over their gambling.
In fact, it is likely that their gambling behavior has taken control of their life. It may seem impossible that the individual isn’t aware that they are hurting others with their behavior. However, the same rule of addiction holds true for this fact as well: the individual may be aware of how their behavior is affecting others, and that they are even losing relationships due to their gambling, but they still find themselves unable to quit.
If you suspect that someone you know and love may be suffering from a gambling addiction, the first step you can take is to learn about this problem. For the moment, try to put aside the ways in which their behavior may have negatively impacted you. While you may feel hurt, abandoned, used, or manipulated, remember that this is an illness, and that standard 12-step programs include phases of restitution and making amends, which will occur later on. Strive to find a way to understand your loved one’s perspective, and approach the problem from where they are, regardless of your own personal beliefs about their gambling problems.
When a person feels that those they care about are doing their best to suspend judgment and criticism — and are just trying to be with them in the moment as they explain what they are experiencing — this opens the channels of communication. Try to identify something you went through in your own life that you can relate to their problems. This will help you better empathize, and allow you to have some compassion for and understanding of their difficulties. They will feel a stronger sense of connection to you, and a stronger sense of trust in your relationship.
Helping your loved one feel understood will increase their willingness to discuss their problems openly and honestly. This will allow you to process the situation with them and create a plan of action collaboratively that meets their needs as well as those of others who are being regularly impacted by their addiction. Just like other serious addiction disorders, gambling addiction generally requires professional intervention to alleviate. Yet even when the individual is being treated with the most effective, empirically validated approach available, the most critical element determining the individual’s treatment outcome is the involvement of friends and family members throughout the recovery process.
Your support, understanding, acceptance, and commitment to remain involved may have a significant impact on your loved one’s ability to beat their habit. Ultimately, it is the constant encouragement, reinforcement, and presence of supportive friends and family that will provide the necessary strength to fight off the addiction demons and attain a life filled with happiness, satisfaction, and community.
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