Gambling involves placing a bet on something of value, such as money or prizes, with the hope of winning. Whether playing a slot machine, buying lottery or scratch tickets, or betting on sports or horse races, most people have gambled at some point. While many people enjoy gambling, it can be addictive and lead to financial problems. The most common cause of problem gambling is an underlying mental health issue, such as depression or anxiety. Other causes include a lack of social connections, boredom, or stress at work. Those who have a family history of compulsive gambling are at greater risk.
Psychiatrists and psychologists are trained to identify the various factors that may contribute to gambling disorder. The most common symptoms of a gambling disorder are: (1) lying to family members, friends, or therapists about the extent of gambling; (2) spending more and more time on gambling, including online or in person; (3) avoiding or withdrawing from social activities; (4) committing illegal acts such as forgery or embezzlement to fund gambling activities; and (5) hiding credit card and bank accounts to hide debt from loved ones (American Psychiatric Association 2000).
Longitudinal studies—following the same group of respondents over time—can help researchers understand how a gambling behavior develops and persists. These studies can also shed light on the influence of other factors, such as personality, family background, and culture. For example, some research shows that people from high-income families are more likely to develop gambling disorders than those from lower income households.
A variety of methods can be used to treat gambling disorders, including counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and psychodynamic therapy. Family therapy is particularly useful in addressing gambling disorder in family members. Medications are not usually used to treat gambling disorders, though some medications may be helpful in treating co-occurring conditions.
Often, people who have a gambling disorder will continue to bet even when they are losing money, a pattern known as “chasing losses.” A person with a gambling problem is also more likely to turn to alcohol and other drugs for relief. These substances can interfere with a person’s ability to think clearly, make decisions, and control impulses.
If you or a loved one is struggling with gambling disorder, talk to a therapist or counselor for help. There are also many support groups for those with gambling problems, such as Gamblers Anonymous, which follows a 12-step recovery model similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. You can also seek help from a debt charity, such as StepChange. They can help you manage your finances and debts while working with a creditor to stop a person with gambling disorder from taking out more loans. To reduce the risk of borrowing more money to gamble, set up a budget and stick to it. Try to find other ways to relieve unpleasant feelings, such as exercising, spending time with supportive friends, or practicing relaxation techniques. You can also learn to manage your emotions in healthier ways and avoid triggers by finding more productive activities that are free of gambling temptations.