Problem gambling, what is it?

Any type of betting activity that makes a person suffer negatively, physically, mentally, emotionally or privately, is considered to be problem gambling. This also includes distress in the form of financial problems, withdrawing from relations with friends and family, as well as more physical responses like anxiety, insomnia, restlessness and irritability.

If these symptoms are not taken seriously, and left untreated, problem gambling could turn into pathological gambling. Pathological gambling is a recognized addiction as per the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

How to recognize problem gambling?

Everyone is different, and that also goes for those struggling with problem gambling. In saying that, some characteristics separate those who have a problem from those who don’t.

The main tell tale sign is generally found when people have difficulty keeping within their gambling limits. A lot of people that gamble make use of the tools for responsible gambling offered by the establishment to keep track of their time and money spent playing. Those that might have a problem with gambling are shown to have a hard time sticking within their limits. They are more likely to increase their limits,spend more, or play longer than what was initially planned.

As with many other addictions, it’s been known that problem gamblers might lie about the time and money spent playing.. Not only do they lie to others, they also convince themselves, refusing to admit to the amount they lose or sometimes even mask their visits to casinos or online gambling sites with stories. They have also been known to hide financial documentation or anything else that would keep the truth from others.

Another common trait for problem gamblers is the belief that they can ‘plan’ their next bet due to probability. Also known as ‘gambler’s fallacy’. For example, if the recent rounds on a roulette wheel have been even numbers, there is a higher likelihood that the next round will have an odd number winning. As almost all the games that are based on chance have a so-called ‘independent outcome’, basing bets on probability doesn’t increase your chances of winning.

Although there are many different reasons why a gambling addict places a bet, there are two main categories that are the most common - ‘action gambling’ and ‘escape gambling’.

An action gambler is a person who begins to gamble in their early adulthood and who finds that gambling gives them a ‘rush’. They would therefore normally focus on games of skill/perceived skill like blackjack, poker and sports betting. Just like a drug addict needs to increase their fix by upping the dose, these players often need to increase the amount they bet to ensure they continue to get the same rush from playing.

Similarly, the escape gambler also begins their gambling during early adulthood, although it has also been known for them to start a little later in life. They see gambling as a way of taking a break from everyday life, but rather than it being a relaxing and controlled experience, they often lose more money and time than initially planned. As the gambling is used as a means to escape, more often than not, you will see these gamblers play games with little to no social interaction, such as slots and table games without a dealer, which are known to peak their interest.

What causes problem gambling?

This is a very difficult question to answer, as there is almost always more than one reason for the issue. Psychology today does take several factors into account including biological and environmental causes to help determine the risk factor for individuals and really get to the bottom of the problem.

On the emotional, biological side of the spectrum, problem gambling might be linked to hormonal imbalances, sometimes if there is an imbalance it can cause dysfunction. Studies have shown that certain characteristics are found in people that suffer from any impulse-control related addiction such as drug abuse, alcoholism or problem gambling:

  • A lower production of serotonin, increasing the risk of depression
  • Interference with the levels of dopamine, which might mean these people require “more” to feel satisfied
  • The prefrontal cortex might have an imbalance. This is the part of the brain that controls decision making and planning
  • Higher levels of cortisol, which might lead to an increased sense of stress

There also seems to be a correlation between problem gambling and environmental and social factors. The problem might arise as a reaction to a certain life-changing event. These events could be traumatic experiences like loss of a loved one, accidents, divorce, redundancies or financial crisis. It is also evident that problem gambling tends to be associated with those from a lower socioeconomic status, suffering from substance abuse, or those in the presence of mental disorders such as bipolar, anxiety, depression. It is also linked to those living in areas where gambling services are commonly offered.


In well-developed countries where gambling is legal, it’s estimated that between 0.5% to 3% of the population has issues with gambling to some extent. The number does vary and depends on how the research was conducted, under what criteria, and on how commonly available the gambling services are between regions.

When the problem becomes pathologic - what happens?

As we mentioned earlier in this text, untreated problem gambling will most likely sooner or later turn into pathological gambling. This means that the brain of the gambler has developed an actual addiction to the act, and similar to a drug addict, the tolerance levels of the addiction will increase as it progresses. The increased tolerance leads to the person “needing” to keep the brain “high”, continuing this behaviour even if it’s causing negative impacts on their life.

Something that might be unknown to many is that research indicates that pathological gambling exceeds all other addictions when it comes to suicide rates. A study made by the US National Council of Problem Gambling saw that 20% of problem gamblers have or will have attempted suicide. This is about twice as high as those with other addictions.

How to treat problem gambling?

Thankfully, problem gambling and pathological gambling is seen as a treatable disorder. According to The American Psychiatric Association, therapy, support groups and medication could give the gamblers an opportunity for a better life, dealing with their disorder. In the UK, the National Health Service has deemed Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) the most successful form of treatment available. CBT is a vocal therapy where the addict talks to psychologists to help them identify and deal with patterns of behaviour that might have been present even before the problems began. There are other types of counselling which may be effective and it some people like to discuss their habits with a financial advisor or the implications it might be having on a relation through couples therapy.

Just as there is an Alcoholics Anonymous program, there is also Gamblers Anonymous (GA) that can aid in treatment. Here, the members of the GA get to discuss all thoughts they have that are connected to their addiction and to analyze the consequences and effects it has had on their life and also share experiences of improvement. These support groups usually use a so-called ‘12-step program’ that takes the recovering addicts through a series of steps to complete on their road to recovery.

If the gambling addiction is a result of a mental illness such as anxiety or depression, medication might be a good option to consider. Using medication like antidepressants has however only shown to be effective for those who have had the mental health condition independently from gambling, not as a result from it. There is however still more research and on-going studies to see if there are any drugs that show a more long-term benefit. We would however always recommend discussing this with you GP for a formal diagnosis before taking any medication.

How do I know if I have a gambling problem?

A gambling problem or addiction happens when a person gambles in a way that is impacting their life negatively. Gamblers Anonymous have created a self-help ‘reality check’ questionnaire that asks relatable questions that are mostly encountered when gambling has turned into a problem or addiction. A problem gambler would most likely answer ‘Yes’ to several of the questions below. Further information regarding the key areas can be found below the following questions.

(Gamblers Anonymous ‘reality check’ questions:)

  1. Did you ever lose time from work or school due to gambling?
  2. Has gambling ever made your home life unhappy?
  3. Did gambling affect your reputation?
  4. Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?
  5. Did you ever gamble to get money with which to pay debts or otherwise solve financial difficulties?
  6. Did gambling cause a decrease in your ambition or efficiency?
  7. After losing, did you feel that you must return as soon as possible and win back your losses?
  8. After a win, did you have a strong urge to return and win more?
  9. Did you often gamble until all your money was gone?
  10. Did you ever borrow to finance your gambling?
  11. Have you ever sold anything to finance gambling?
  12. Were you reluctant to use “gambling money” for normal expenditures?
  13. Did gambling make you careless of the welfare of yourself or your family?
  14. Did you ever gamble longer than you had planned?
  15. Have you ever gambled to escape worry, trouble, boredom, loneliness, grief or loss?
  16. Have you ever committed, or considered committing, an illegal act to finance gambling?
  17. Did gambling cause you to have difficulty in sleeping?
  18. Do arguments, disappointments or frustrations create within you an urge to gamble?
  19. Did you ever have an urge to celebrate any good fortune by a few hours of gambling?
  20. Have you ever considered self-destruction or suicide as a result of your gambling?

Financial problems

Since you need money to gamble, a problem gambler does at some point often run into financial struggles. It is, however, important to understand that a person won’t have to run themselves into complete financial ruin for them to classify as having a gambling problem. Having an addiction to gambling might make it harder for the person to pay their bills, keep on top of their debts or meet other financial obligations. It might also contribute to increased debt, or put them in a position where they are unable to cover any kind of emergency expenses, or contributions to a future retirement fund.

These financial issues may not develop as a result of gambling losses, they could arise due to the misuse of their set budget which should be used to cover every day expenses instead of gambling.

Destruction of life at home

Problem gamblers often see their addiction affecting their home life in a negative way.This is usually as a result of them hiding their gambling from loved ones, by refusing to share bank statements, or being vague about where they are, which creates mistrust. Anger and frustration can be taken out on partners which is generally due to irritation from big losses, or as a result of a period without gambling.

Others showing concern

Although the gambler might do their utmost to hide their addiction, it’s only a matter of time before family, friends and others might start to question or comment on their gambling habits. This might especially affect the person if it is brought up by colleagues or bosses at the workplace.

Destruction of life at work

And speaking of the workplace, problem gambling can have a negative affect in many ways, including missing out on work in order to gamble.. Other signs would be a lower level of performance and productivity or quality of produced work, and a worsened relationship with colleagues or clients. It might lead to that person's reputation being affected, disciplinary actions taken, or in the worst case, being fired.

Regret & Remorse

An addict is not heartless or without empathy, so obviously they might have feelings of remorse during gambling. This can arise due to too much time spent gambling, extremely high losses, or feeling ashamed for lying to people they care about.

Being unable to stop

Some people with a gambling problem might find it incredibly hard to stop their gambling until they have no more money to play with. This happens even if they are aware that they are causing harm, and the behaviour tends to worsen over time. Once the gambling budget funds have been spent, the person finds other means to finance the gambling by taking credit card advances, cashing cheques, or cash withdrawals from ATMs until they have exhausted all possible funds available (and not available) to them in one session.

Chasing losses

Closely related to the inability to stop is the problem gamblers urge to chase after losses. This might be something that can’t be helped as sometimes a person will understand that there is no reason to continue once they have lost but continue anyway.

Another reason someone might keep ‘chasing’ a win is when the gambler wants to return to the same slot or the same casino venue after a win. This is generally because they feel they have ‘luck on their side’. Regardless of whether the person manages to win more during a period, in the long-run, they will most likely lose all their winnings due to the house edge.

The need to escape

Although most gambling starts with the intention of having fun , problem gamblers often start using it as a means of escaping from everyday life which can increase the risk of loneliness and depression.

Rationalizing gambling

Problem gamblers often make up a reason for their gambling, a purpose. It might be due to either positive or negative events in their life. They might use gambling as a way to celebrate achievements, or use it to ‘calm down’ after an argument.

Financing the addiction in an illegal or questionable way

Gamblers who have eliminated their means of finance often turn to questionable or illegal ways to continue financing their habit. From reaching credit card limits, pawning possessions, asking friends or family for money, and in some cases stealing or committing fraud.

Affecting physical and mental wellbeing

The consequences of problem gambling are more than material. A lot of gambling addicts have a worsened wellbeing, both mentally and physically. This could be stress-related issues like headaches, high blood pressure and insomnia. Online players might also experience issues related to being still for long periods such as stroke, heart attacks and spinal issues, which might lead to a worsened mental health with further depression, anxiety, and possibly suicidal tendencies.

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