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Gambling is usually nothing more than a bit of fun. For some, however, it spins out of control and becomes an addiction. What do you need to know?

Gambling is a popular and often harmless past time — occasional players usually don't spend too much money, have a fun time, and don't engage too often. Some get sucked in over time, however, often because they lost and now feel compelled to gamble more and more in an ever-less likely bid to recover lost money. Soon enough, you could have some serious financial problems.

Around 10 million people in the US have a gambling addiction. In the grip of this beast, they just can't stop — and gambling quickly takes up the most prominent place in their lives.

Signs betting has taken over your life: What are the symptoms of a gambling addiction?

The (DSM-5) — the fifth edition of the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders — calls gambling addiction "gambling disorder". To be diagnosed with it, a person has to have been problematically gambling for a year or more in a way that interferes with their life and wellbeing. 

At least four of these symptoms are also required for an official diagnosis:

  • You feel the need to gamble with more money each time to become achieve the same thrill.
  • You have made several attempts to cut back, or stop your gambling, but you're still at it anyway.
  • You gamble a lot when you feel stressed out, anxious, depressed, or guilty.
  • Once you lose money to gambling, you soon feel compelled to go back to retrieve your lost money through fresh wins.
  • You feel restless or irritated when you try to cut down or stop gambling.
  • Your gambling has put you under serious financial strain, so you ask other people to give your money or do questionable things to get more funds.
  • You lie to cover up how much you really gamble.
  • You have lost a job, relationship, or educational opportunity because of gambling.
  • You think about gambling all the time — reminiscing about past gambling experiences, planning how to gamble next time, or trying to think up ways you can get money to gamble with.

These symptoms can be constant, or you may go through periods of intense gambling that stop after a while, but come back later.

Gambling addiction: What are the risk factors?

Millions of people all over the world enjoy gambling occasionally without ever meeting the diagnostic criteria for gambling disorder or being anywhere near addiction. Why is it that some people become addicted to gambling?

  • Gambling addictions can run in families, because both genetic factors and growing up exposed to gambling make it more likely that you'll end up being a gambler. 
  • However, a family or a personal history of alcoholism can also increase your risk of becoming addicted to gambling. If this is you and you have not gambled yet, you should stay away from gambling.
  • Gender and age can impact a person's risk of developing a gambling addiction, too. Men are more likely to become addicted to gambling, with 1.2 percent of men having a gambling addiction compared to just 0.1 percent of women.
  • Younger people aged around 16 to 24 are more likely to have a problem with gambling while older people, 45 and older, are less likely to. Older people might start gambling later in life due to significant stress, job loss, financial troubles, or divorce.
  • Your risk of becoming a gambling addict may just depend on where you live — Canada and Australia have special problems with gambling. 

What are the consequences of a gambling addiction?

Gambling addicts are likely to have poor mental health — not necessarily because of gambling, though, as someone with underlying mental health struggles could have also started gambling as a way to feel better. Gambling addicts have higher rates of job loss, divorce, and arrest, may have been to jail or prison, or could have had to declare bankruptcy because of their addiction-related behaviors. Gambling can, of course, be really hard on the wallet. Research shows that gambling causes addicts to lose about $10,550 on average. 

Addicts can experience physical health problems as well. Gambling addicts have a higher risk of suffering sudden cardiac death, likely because casinos are usually filled with smokers and because of the stress gambling causes.

Can you treat your gambling addiction?

Yes. Addiction is a chronic and often progressive brain disease that leads to permanent changes in the way your mind responds to addictive experiences and substances, however. That means that success rates aren't excellent, but some gamblers do manage to permanently abstain from gambling. They will always be addicts and will need to avoid gambling for the rest of the lives; if an addict gambles "just one more time", they're likely to go back to their old habits, right into the arms of addiction. 

Treatment options for gambling addicts include:

  • Joining gamblers anonymous, a self-help group like Alcoholics Anonymous, is one way to start your journey towards a gambling-free life. 
  • Trying cognitive behavioral therapy, a talk therapy that aims to change your behavioral patterns by changing thought patterns, is another way you could try to stop gambling. 
  • Antidepressants might also help you, with SSRIs showing potential.

  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA
  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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