Gambling Addiction Guides & Articles

Karina Thadani
Last updated:
Brindusa Vanta, MD, DHMHS
Medical Editor

What Is Gambling Addiction?

Gambling addiction, also known as pathological gambling, is characterized by an urge to gamble even though it negatively impacts the person's life. The act of gambling involves risking something valuable in hopes of gaining an even more valuable prize. Generally, gambling is associated with betting money.

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Common gambling addiction symptoms include the following:

  • Continuously gambling, despite having lost money or being in debt
  • Struggling to stop or reduce gambling
  • Getting a thrill from gambling or from increasing bets
  • Neglecting day-to-day obligations (such as school or work) to focus on gambling
  • Feeling irritable after reducing gambling
  • Using gambling as a distraction or coping mechanism
  • Chasing losses (or trying to earn back funds by gambling more)
  • Lying to others about gambling
  • Depending on others for financial support after losing money through gambling

While casual gamblers stop placing bets after losing a certain amount, those with gambling addictions typically continue making bets. Extreme gambling affects more than just finances — it impacts all areas of life. Many gamblers experience problems with relationships, school, work, and physical and mental health. Once gambling becomes compulsive, it's difficult to stop. 1

What Is Compulsive Gambling?

People with gambling addictions usually bet compulsively, which means they have an uncontrollable desire to gamble. In other words, they cannot prevent themselves from gambling, even though they recognize it's a bad habit.

Oftentimes, the motive for gambling is to earn back lost money. However, in many cases, the gambler ends up losing even more money, resulting in debt. To get more funds, the gambler may steal or borrow from others, which negatively affects relationships. 2

Unfortunately, compulsive gambling is a serious issue in the United States. Approximately 85% of Americans have gambled at least once. Among these individuals, about 2 million have a gambling addiction. An additional 4 to 6 million, meanwhile, struggle with gambling. 3

Most states set an age requirement of 18+ or 21+ to gamble. 4 Despite the law, many mobile applications market gambling games to children. They may get around the age requirement by letting children wager fake game money. Even though the funds aren't real, these mobile games can help foster a gambling addiction. According to the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems, children over 10 years old are at risk of becoming compulsive gamblers. Other age groups that commonly experience gambling addictions are adults between ages 24 and 55 and senior citizens. 5

Why Is Gambling Addictive?

Anyone—whether they're a teenager or senior—can become addicted to gambling. The reason gambling is addictive is that it affects brain chemistry. More specifically, gambling triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter (or chemical messenger) that encourages excitement.

Dopamine is released in the brain during wins, but it may also be released during losses. After losing money, the gambler might become excited to try and win it back through further gambling. As mentioned earlier, this phenomenon is called "chasing losses." 6

What Causes Gambling Addiction?

There's no specific cause of gambling addictions. However, a person may be more likely to develop an addiction if they meet any of the following risk factors:

  • Family influence. Those who have family members with gambling addictions have a higher chance of becoming addicted.
  • Mental health conditions. Having a mental health condition (such as depression or anxiety) can increase the likelihood of addictive behaviors.
  • Medications. Dopamine agonists, which mimic the effects of dopamine in the body, can encourage gambling addictions. This medication type is often used to treat Parkinson's disease or restless legs syndrome.
  • Personality. People who are competitive, impulsive, or restless are more likely to compulsively gamble. 7

How to Stop Gambling Addiction

Due to its addictive nature, it can be very hard to stop gambling. And thanks to online casinos, it's become easier than ever to gamble. Once someone recognizes they have a problem, it's important they take steps to minimize it. Here are a few suggestions on how to overcome gambling addictions temporarily:

  • Block online gambling websites.
  • Find hobbies to occupy free time.
  • Let someone else manage finances.

While these actions can help prevent gambling, they're not long-term solutions. To fully overcome the addiction, it's helpful to seek professional gambling addiction treatment. 8

Best Treatment for Gambling Addiction

One of the best treatments for a gambling addiction is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This treatment involves changing the thoughts and feelings that encourage bad behaviors like gambling. While treatment varies from person to person, it typically focuses on the following areas:

  • Changing thoughts about gambling
  • Improving problem-solving and social skills
  • Helping prevent relapses

During CBT, counselors help patients identify the thoughts or beliefs that led them to gambling. Then, they work together to address these thoughts and improve problem-solving behaviors, fostering an environment where the patient no longer needs to rely on gambling. 9

How to Cope With a Gambling Addiction

The impact gambling has on a person's finances, relationships, and daily obligations can result in serious stress. Here are a few coping mechanisms to help deal with this stress.

  • Hobbies: Engaging in hobbies can distract from gambling while also providing pleasure.
  • Support networks: Friends and family can support gamblers as they battle their addiction while also helping them feel less lonely.
  • Peer support: Peer support groups, such as Gambler's Anonymous, connect gamblers to people experiencing similar problems. 10

How to Help Someone With Gambling Addiction?

Despite its benefits, only 1 in 10 gamblers receive professional gambling addiction treatment. 11 Because gamblers don't always seek help on their own, it's often up to friends and family to support them. Here are a few ways to help someone with an addiction:

  • Join support groups. Support groups can give advice to the loved ones of gamblers.
  • Manage finances. People who share finances with a gambler (such as spouses) should take over financial management.
  • Encourage therapy. Gamblers may be more inclined to attend therapy when encouraged by a loved one. 12

Ultimately, gambling negatively affects both the gambler and their loved ones. However, with treatment, gamblers can beat addictions and regain control of their lives. Learn how to help someone with a gambling addiction.