From sports betting apps and trips to a nearby casino, to friendly wagers on your favorite Tennessee team, gambling is a common, fun way to connect with (or compete against) friends. But as with most forms of recreation, too much of a good thing can become bad: once harmless gambling can become an addiction.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition) defines gambling disorder and classifies it as an addictive disorder. So, how can you know if you have an addiction to gambling?

There are multiple tell-tale signs of a gambling problem. Keep reading to learn about signs and symptoms that indicate you or a loved one may have a gambling addiction.

Is It Ok to Want to Keep Gambling?

Oftentimes, losing money gambling does not stop someone from placing their next bet—or next 10 bets. It’s actually pretty common for individuals to want to continue gambling, or “chasing,” after they experience a loss, seeking to at least win back what they lost. While continuing to gamble after losing money is not inherently a problem, it can become one.

Those who feel the need to chase their losses may show signs of a gambling problem. Chasing losses is a cognitive distortion where individuals think that they can win back what they lost if they just keep going. They may believe that past losses increase the chance that they will win in the future or that they can predict the outcomes.

These predictions can include ideas like hot machines and good luck charms. However, this sense of control is, in reality, an illusion. Unchecked loss chasing can lead to greater financial distress, which is considered a sign of a gambling problem.

Rather than continuing to chase their losses, individuals may want to practice responsible gambling techniques, such as:

  • setting limits with a budget
  • leaving credit and debit cards at home
  • take frequent breaks, like getting a coffee, something to eat, or fresh air

If an individual cannot resist the urge to chase their losses, it may be time to seek treatment for problem gambling behavior.

What Problems Can Compulsive Gambling Cause?

Problem gambling behavior can contribute to a myriad of problems, including considerable financial problems, rips in their closest relationships, physical distress, and psychological harm. Problem gambling is often associated with increased suicidal ideation and attempts, especially in the context of comorbid mental disorders. If you notice that you or someone you love experiences these problems, there is a good chance they have a gambling problem. But what do these problems specifically look like?

Financial Difficulties

Problem gambling behavior can result in significant financial losses. These losses can contribute to a decline in quality of life that often includes loss of funds, debt, bankruptcy, and the inability to meet financial obligations, like rent or mortgages.

Financial harms can also include behaviors like depleting savings, cutting back on insurance, forgoing needed repairs, and putting off purchasing necessary household items. In severe cases, financial losses may lead to being unable to pay essential bills, losing one’s home, or even bankruptcy.

These harms may also negatively impact family members who may lose money from joint savings and income.

Additionally, many individuals experience debt from borrowing money from family, friends, banks (i.e., loans), or credit cards. For some individuals, the financial consequences of problem gambling behavior can be so severe that they are unable to repay their debts, thus leading to bankruptcy.

Relationship Problems

On average, problem gambling harms approximately 6 other people, usually who are individuals close to the one with a gambling problem. Relationships can suffer when the individual with problem gambling lies about their behavior, causing distrust, in addition to financial distress. These strained relationships can include family members, friends, and partners.

Lying about gambling behaviors to loved ones in order to conceal debt or a gambling addiction can lead to conflict, anger, stress, and distrust. Repeatedly hiding problem gambling behavior and related harms may completely fracture relationships and contribute to the complete loss of relationships.

Furthermore, long-term financial harms can impact close relationships by having to postpone big life goals, like buying a home or having a baby. These affected relationships can cause close loved ones to be dissatisfied with their quality of life, leading to discord and further distrust.

Although difficult, rebuilding trust in relationships is possible. It does, however, require dedication and patience from everybody, which can be a challenge. But receiving the right treatment can significantly help individuals to begin improving their lives and relationships with others.

Isolation and Loneliness

Similarly, problem gambling behavior may lead to isolation. Some individuals may withdraw from social activities and isolate themselves to hide their gambling behavior. Isolation may also occur due to the experience of depression from problem gambling behavior. Additionally, discord in interpersonal relationships may lead to a lack of social support, thus leading to isolation.

Because humans tend to be social creatures, isolation can lead to even more problems, psychologically and emotionally.

Psychological and Emotional Distress

Problem gambling behavior can contribute to significant psychological harm and emotional distress. For instance, many individuals may experience anxiety and stress due to gambling-related harms (e.g., financial distress and discord in interpersonal relationships) or related to gambling activity (e.g., anticipation of gambling outcomes).

Furthermore, problem gambling behavior can cause and increase existing anxiety and distressing worry, significant sadness—possibly depression, strong feelings of guilt and shame, and other mental health problems as a person’s gambling involvement spirals.

Similarly, an individual may experience feelings of depression due to their problem gambling behavior, which can lead to feelings of hopelessness, sadness, guilt, and shame. These feelings may also contribute to suicidal thoughts or behaviors, particularly when individuals feel overwhelmed by financial problems and hopelessness.

Psychological harm from problem gambling behavior can also affect loved ones and mirror the same symptoms as the individual experiencing problem gambling behavior. Moreover, the consequences of problem gambling behavior can contribute to significant psychological harm to the individual and loved ones.

Legal Problems and Criminal Issues

Uncontrolled gambling may lead to legal problems, such as arrests for theft, embezzlement, fraud, or other crimes committed in order to fund gambling activities. Efforts to secure funds to gamble sometimes result in people engaging in behaviors that they would not have considered prior to excessively gambling.

Though hard to precisely quantify, it appears that up to 10% of those with a gambling problem will engage in criminal efforts to gain access to money. While violent crime is rare, non-violent crimes such as skimming the register at work, charging the business card to fund gambling behaviors, and using access to others’ bank accounts are more common.

Health Problems

Excessive gambling behavior can contribute to stress-related health problems, including insomnia, high blood pressure, digestive issues, and substance misuse. Unfortunately, these stress-related problems can increase and cause unnecessary medical costs to themselves and their families.

Work Problems or Academic Problems

Engaging in uncontrolled gambling can impair performance at work or school due to distractions, decreased productivity, and financial stress. Such harms are often subtle—even the person who gambles may not notice them—but over time, they erode a person’s reputation and performance.

Recent evidence suggests that some college students who gamble delay their college degree and potentially drop out of school. Such academic harms will lead to long-term reduction in earning potential and may reduce self-esteem.

What are Common Signs of a Gambling Addiction?

In addition to experiencing gambling-related harms, there are specific signs that can tip off whether or not someone has a gambling problem. The behavior and rationalization of problem gamblers often include justifying their actions and downplaying the severity of their addiction.

Common signs of a gambling addiction include:

  • Gambling with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement.
  • Experiencing restlessness or irritability when attempting to cut down or stop gambling.
  • Making repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop gambling.
  • Preoccupied with gambling (e.g., having persistent thoughts of reliving past gambling experiences or thinking of ways to get money to gamble with).
  • Often gambles when feeling distressed (e.g., helpless, guilty, anxious, depressed) as a means of escape.
  • After losing money by gambling, often returns another day to get even (“chasing” one’s losses).
  • Lying or hiding the extent of gambling from family and friends, lying about gambling activities, or borrowing money to gamble.
  • Has jeopardized or lost a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of gambling.
  • Experiencing financial distress (e.g., debt, bankruptcy, or not paying bills).

The Vicious Cycle

Unfortunately, the psychological and emotional distress that gambling addiction can cause may also drive the individual to gamble as a coping mechanism. Of course, that only perpetuates the issue.

For example, among individuals seeking treatment, those who experience problem gambling behavior suggest that money is the main reason to quit. At the same time, money is one of the primary reasons for relapse.

How to Get Out of the Spiral

Nevertheless, individuals seeking gambling treatment reported less severe harm than people who gambled regularly. Seeking treatment is a significant part of recovery. Treatment provides an encouraging environment where individuals can begin a plan for changing their financial situation and improving their quality of life.

How to Screen for Problem Gambling

Screening for gambling disorder can serve as a tool for individuals who suspect they may have a gambling disorder. These screening tools provide insight to allow individuals to seek early intervention and treatment, which can prevent the experience of gambling-related harm.

Screening tools may also validate an individual’s experience, especially for those unsure whether they are experiencing problem gambling behavior.

Individuals may access screening for problem gambling behavior through the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation website by taking the PGSI Quiz.

Additionally, The Gambling Clinic also offers a screening survey for problem gambling behavior and provides access to treatment.

Counseling for Gambling Disorder

The good news for individuals who believe they may have a gambling problem is that there is gambling-specific therapy designed to manage gambling behaviors and reduce harms over time. This therapy does not require the individual to stop gambling altogether if that is what they wish. Rather, it helps them get a grip on their compulsion to gamble and teaches them ways to gamble responsibly.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Gambling Addiction

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a widely used therapeutic approach for individuals with problem gambling behavior and addiction overall. CBT helps individuals identify triggers and underlying risk factors that contribute to their gambling behavior. This may involve exploring personal, emotional, financial, or environmental factors influencing their gambling habits.

Additionally, CBT treatment helps individuals learn coping strategies to manage urges to gamble and deal with high-risk situations. Further treatment helps individuals develop relapse prevention strategies to maintain long-term recovery from problem gambling behavior.

The goal of CBT treatment is to allow individuals to be able to increase their self-efficacy (i.e., confidence in believing they can control their gambling behavior).

Together, these facets are significant in overcoming problem gambling behavior and improving quality of life.

Additional Benefits of Therapy or Counseling

Therapy is also helpful in addressing co-occurring mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse that may be contributing to problem gambling behavior. Additionally, therapy may also help individuals repair and rebuild relationships by improving communication skills and addressing the emotional impact of gambling on their loved ones.

Moreover, therapy provides a supportive and nonjudgmental environment where individuals can express their feelings, concerns, and struggles openly. Therapists offer encouragement, validation, and guidance throughout the recovery process, empowering individuals to make positive life changes. In addition to therapy, both in-person and online support groups, as well as hotlines, offer help and resources for problem gamblers and their family members.

Seek Help for a Gambling Problem

Billboards and TV commercials constantly remind us how common and how entertaining gambling can be. However, they fail to inform us how dangerous a gambling problem can become. Financial harms from losses are just the beginning. The good news for those with a gambling problem is that change is possible.

If you or someone you love needs help managing their gambling behaviors, reach out to us at The Gambling Clinic. Our research-backed cognitive behavioral therapy has an 87% reduction in gambling related harms for those who complete a minimum of 8 to 10 sessions. Relief from compulsive gambling behaviors can start today.