Am I Addicted to Gambling?

By Tom Tjornehoj

“I am a compulsive gambler,” Kenneth J. shares in his personal story on “As with substance addictions, gambling affected everything in my personal life. It caused me to spend $150,000….The combination of unresolved thoughts and emotions, substance abuse and other addictions [like gambling] causes great suffering,” said, adding, “One must be willing to recognize and admit that a change for the better is needed.”

Many people simply think of gambling as a thrilling pastime or a fun way to spend a weekend. Dreams of unimaginable riches may dance around, like the classic sugar plums in the heads of those who stick a coin into a slot machine or lay $2 on the gas station counter for a mega-lottery ticket.

But for some people, these seemingly innocuous acts lead to much more. About one percent of the US population (that’s about 2 million people) meets the criteria to be classified as a “pathological gambler,” that is, someone who cannot resist the urge to gamble.

Another 4 to 6 million Americans are “problem gamblers.” They may not have completely surrendered their rational control over the impulse to gamble, but they exhibit some of the traits listed below.1

Indicators of a Gambling Addiction

  • Can’t stop gambling
  • Gambles with money they can’t afford to lose
  • Bets go beyond mere entertainment
  • Seek to recover losses by gambling more
  • Gamble with increasing amounts of money
  • Resort to extreme measures in order to get money for gambling
  • Give gambling priority over things that should be more important
  • Frustration, irritation, remorse and other negative emotions and behaviors tied to gambling1

The negative impact of gambling can extend to many areas of people’s lives beyond just financial. If left untreated, addiction can lead to family and relationship issues, job loss, legal issues and a greater likelihood of self-harm — possibly even suicide.1

How Gambling Addiction Happens

The brain controls a wide range of psychological and physiological functions through a finely tuned system of chemical signals in the central nervous system.

Naturally occurring chemicals such as endorphins, adrenaline and various hormones direct the following:

  • Panic or fear response
  • Feelings of optimism, confidence or hopefulness
  • Temper or rage
  • Sexual attraction
  • Appetite
  • Sleeping and waking
  • Anxiety and stress management
  • Pain management
  • Behavior reinforcement and habit formation

Slight boosts of these natural “feel good” chemicals are noticed by the reward center in the brain. So, anything that’s done to create those feelings is encouraged by the brain. This is why some people can’t wait to eat delicious food, exercise, have sex, spend money, smoke cigarettes — or gamble.

Gambling man with bad handGambling can be more risky (and addictive) than other behaviors because it offers not only the prospect of big reward and visual and auditory stimulation, but also the danger of a huge personal loss.

Once people become addicted to gambling, certain neural pathways in the brain are rewired to drive thoughts and behavior. This restructuring in the brain can overpower any rational thought or willpower.2

“Addictive behaviors ‘hijack’ the brain’s reward system,” explains Petros Levounis, MD, director of the Addiction Institute of New York at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals in Manhattan.

He further explains that as surges of dopamine, the neurotransmitter of “happiness,” are repeated over and over again by doing something pleasurable, momentum picks up. The brakes may begin to fail. Normal functioning of the brain’s frontal lobes — responsible for inhibitory control and executive functioning (willpower) — decreases.

“Ultimately,” Levounis continues, “War [is waged] between the hijacked reward pathways that push the person to want to [engage is the risky behavior], and the frontal lobes, which try to keep the beast at bay. That is the essence of addiction.”3

What Can Be Done to Treat a Gambling Addiction?

Starting down the road of recovery from an addiction to gambling requires taking many of the same steps required for those who are addicted to chemical substances.

Addicts must come to the point where they:

  1. Admit that something is wrong and help is needed
  2. Go through detox to cleanse the body of toxins
  3. Seek out and continue using a positive support network
  4. Avoid all relapse triggers as new habits and new relationships begin to form
  5. Find positive activities to engage in as alternatives to gambling
  6. Get expert help for not only this addiction, but also for any co-occurring mental health conditions1

Choosing a highly reputable and successful treatment facility is key. We can put you in touch with a professional team of addiction and mental illness specialists that truly care about seeing you recover. We’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to provide information, answer questions or help you determine your next step. Call us at 855-396-2975.

18 Signs You’re Addicted to Gambling and 5 Tips to Stop.” Money Talks News, January 24, 2013.

2Reviewing Two Types of Addiction – Pathological Gambling and Substance Use.” Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, Volume 34, Number 1, Pages 5-11, January-March 2012.

3Doctor’s Orders: Brain’s Wiring Makes Change Hard.” MedPage Today, January 30, 2010.