When gambling might be a problem

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Just as we’ve finished welcoming the new year, sports fans are getting ready to celebrate the Super Bowl. This event marks the single most active gambling-related activity in the world. For most gamblers, betting on the outcome of a sporting event, lottery drawing, casino table game, or any event with an outcome determined by chance represents an entertaining recreational activity. However, for some, gambling can become an addiction.

Excessive gambling recognized as an addiction

Gambling disorder is now a part of the American Psychiatric Association’s latest version of its diagnostic manual (DSM-5). Gambling is the first “behavioral” addiction included in the substance-related and addictive disorders section of the manual. For the first time, the APA recognizes that substance-related addiction and difficult-to-control behavioral addiction are similar enough to be grouped as comparable expressions of addiction.

Now, clinicians, scientists, policy makers, gambling purveyors, and the public alike recognize that addiction can emerge from patterns of excessive behavior that derive from either using a substance, such as tobacco or alcohol, or engaging in activities like gambling, video game playing, or sex. This might come as a surprise, but it’s true. You can become addicted to gambling just like you can become addicted to alcohol or other drugs.

History and causes of gambling problems

Historically, opinions about gambling have tended to mirror the social and moral climate of the day. Gambling problems aren’t anything new; there were scientific papers written about excessive gambling as far back as 1798 and, reaching even further back into history, there are cave drawings depicting gambling-related behaviors. However, the concept that problem gambling is not a moral defect but instead a disorder is relatively new. Most experts and clinicians now consider gambling addiction as a legitimate biological, cognitive, and behavioral disorder. Further, although mental disorders can lead to problem gambling, gambling to excess also can lead to other problems.

Gambling problems have many potential causes: genetics, erroneous thought patterns, impulse control disorders, poverty, and personal experiences, for example. An estimated 2% to 3% of the US population has experienced some kind of gambling-related problem during the past 12 months. That means about 5.5 million people currently have a gambling disorder, or gambling-related problems that don’t quite rise to the level of a disorder.

Do you have a gambling problem?

To see if you might be struggling with a gambling disorder, try this quick three item screen:

  • During the past 12 months, have you become restless, irritable, or anxious when trying to stop and/or cut down on gambling?
  • During the past 12 months, have you tried to keep your family or friends from knowing how much you gambled?
  • During the past 12 months, did you have such financial trouble as a result of gambling that you had to get help with living expenses from family, friends, or welfare?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should evaluate your gambling and how it fits into your life. There are many resources to help, and my colleagues and I have published an easily accessible book that can help you to evaluate your gambling and decide whether you might be a candidate for treatment. Some people need treatment to recover from addiction, while others recover on their own with no help from anyone.

To figure out whether you might benefit from a change, you need to take stock. A variety of mental health issues often accompany excessive gambling. You might have some of these symptoms even if they don’t reflect a full-blown disorder. It’s worth it to figure out whether gambling and associated activities are adversely influencing your life. Understanding how gambling works for you is a worthwhile exercise, even if you choose to continue gambling.


Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5).

Optimizing DSM-IV-TR Classification Accuracy: A Brief Biosocial Screen for Detecting Current Gambling Disorders among Gamblers in the General Household Population. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, February 2010.

Change Your Gambling, Change Your Life: Strategies for Managing Gambling and Improving Your Finances, Relationships and Health. Jossey-Bass, 2012.


  1. David Gust, LAADC, NCAC II, CADC II

    My name is David Gust,LAADC, NCAC II, CADC II and I have been a addictions counselor for over 40 years. As I’m reading this article to a client who has an addiction to day trading and almost said you might need to take a stock,… you might consider using an alternative word than “stock” in the first sentence of the last paragraph of this piece due to the percentage of people with gambling addictions and more specifically, day trading addictions who buy “stock” as a result of their addiction.
    When one is asked if they have a gambling problem by seeing if they have one of the three criteria, you listed and if so “to ……you should evaluate your gambling and how it fits into your life. I would recommend that if one does indeed have one of the three criteria to seek professional help to access if they indeed do have a problem or addiction. Thank you for your contributions -David Gust, LAADC, NCAC II, CADC II

  2. Suzanne

    I wonder how many gamblers acknowledge that they have a problem and seek help? In my experience, the gambler blames someone else, either for over-reacting to ‘a very common social pastime’ or for ‘trying to control then.’ The lying and other deceptions were not his fault; it was simply how he had to deal with an unreasonable person. If the gambler is stuck in that mindset, is there anything we can do?


    I am a Mental Health therapist and Certified Disordered Gambling Counselor. If you have an issue with gambling or a family member does I urge you to check out your States resources. In Nebraska the Comission no Problem Gambling offers FREE assessment and counseling for disordered gambling as well as many other states. You do not have to do this alone.

  4. Suresh Bhave

    Addiction to gambling results from the thrill an incorrigible gambler gets from gambling. One of my juniors at work was addicted to cards. He described most graphically the thrill he felt when picking up the cards dealt to him- the goosebumps and the holding of breath. His hand shook when he touched the cards in anticipation of the glee or the despondency that the revelation of the cards would cause him. The pay-back from this addicion is the thrill. The fear of loss and financial ruin or a win and a windfall gain do not deter or motivate such a gambler. All that matters is the thrill. That is just like a smoker who is not deterred by the horrible consequences of smoking.

  5. A. Watson

    I would like to share an article to answer your question. The article is found at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/12/losing-it-all/505814/
    This is an excerpt from the article:
    Gambling is a drug-free addiction. Yet despite the fact that there is no external chemical at work on the brain, the neurological and physiological reactions to the stimulus are similar to those of drug or alcohol addicts. Some gambling addicts report that they experience a high resembling that produced by a powerful drug. Like drug addicts, they develop a tolerance, and when they cannot gamble, they show signs of withdrawal such as panic attacks, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, and heart palpitations.
    My comment: The sooner a person finds help, the better. It is a progressive addiction that gets harder to control as time passes.

  6. Andrew Toner

    Some people can gamble in a normal way, however I am not one of those people.

    I always had an interest in money & once I began gambling at an early age I quickly began spending more than I should, missing out on things so I could gamble.

    This was just the beginning as my gambling progressive got worse, I was destroying my relationship, my whole character was changing, lying, cheating, stealing.

    There more I gambled the more secretive I became, I found it easier to consider the complete destruction of my whole life rather than getting proper help for my addiction.

    Thankfully after being caught out by my wife for about the 15 time, she eventually gave me an ultimatum, however by this point my life was a mess & I was desperate to get out of the endless cycle of poverty, worry & gambling.

    I joined gamblers anonymous in Glasgow, Scotland on 18 March 2014 & despite a lot of difficulties personally I have not gambled since.

    The support I have received has been overwhelming & I have managed to change my whole life around, I am now on the verge of being debt free, I socialise, I have time for my family & most importantly I give back to my wife who endured a lot during my worst.

    I also give back to gamblers anonymous and will continue to go as that is what keeps me in a good productive place.

    Life doesn’t need to be like how it seems forever, be brave, get help it will be the best thing you ever do.

    God Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things i can & the wisdom to know the difference.

  7. Kale Jennings

    This is a really interesting piece. Do you believe any kind of gambling can lead to financial troubles and lead to serious problems in the future? I tried this 1callloans.com for more information on gambling but there hasn’t seemed to be new data on the subject.

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