Gambling Disorder: Treatment for Gambling Addiction
If your gambling habits are disrupting your finances, relationships, and life, gambling addiction treatment can help.
Gambling at casinos or buying lottery tickets can be a fun, harmless activity for some people. For others, it may be a problematic urge that negatively affects their finances, relationships, and life.
If you fall into the latter group, you’re not alone. A reported 2.2% of adults and 6% to 9% of young adults have compulsive gambling habits.
Knowing the signs of gambling addiction and how to get treatment can help you stop problematic gambling that may be negatively affecting your life.
Gambling disorder is not a personality trait. It also doesn’t mean that someone is immoral, bad with money, or doesn’t care about the damage their gambling may cause.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) classifies gambling disorder as a substance-related and addictive disorder.
To be diagnosed with gambling disorder, the DSM-5 indicates that you must present recurring problematic gambling behavior that leads to clinically significant distress or impairment for more than a year.
According to the , a person may be diagnosed with gambling disorder if they exhibit four or more of the following symptoms or behaviors:
- having a preoccupation with gambling
- gambling with increasing amounts of money
- having an inability to cut back or stop gambling despite attempts to do so
- feeling restless or irritable when trying to stop or cut back on gambling
- gambling when distressed, anxious, or depressed
- continuing to gamble even after losing
- lying to family members and others about their involvement in gambling
- committing illegal acts to fund their gambling habit
- jeopardizing or losing an important relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity due to gambling
- relying on others for money to relieve financial problems caused by gambling
Someone with gambling disorder may feel an unmanageable compulsion to gamble, from playing slot machines or other casino games to betting on sports. They might have trouble stopping gambling. They might also lie to conceal their gambling, resulting in damaged relationships and significant debt.
“Often referred to as a ‘secret addiction,’ most gamblers can hide the scope of their devastation from family and friends until it’s too late,” says Kobie West, MS, LADC, CPGC, who works as a certified problem gambling counselor for the Dr. Robert Hunter International Problem Gambling Center.
Some research shows that compulsive gambling may be linked to dopamine release in the brain, similar to addiction to a substance. The uncertainty of winning can create a perpetual release of dopamine while gambling.
According to a 2020 review, this increased release causes desensitization to dopamine, driving one to place bigger bets to up the risk and potential reward. It’s called the pleasure potential.
No matter what symptoms you’re experiencing, gambling disorder can be managed and treated.
If your gambling habits are disrupting your life, several treatment options can help you manage the urge to gamble.
Gambling addiction treatment centers typically offer structured recovery programs and research-based practices.
Depending on your needs, you can stay at inpatient rehabilitation centers or find outpatient programs.
Residential treatment centers usually offer the following services:
- constant supervision from professionals
- daily individual and group therapy sessions
- life coaching
Outpatient program schedules are more flexible and don’t require you to live at the care center, so you can continue participating in work, school, and other areas of your life.
Treatment programs vary in length from weeks to months.
12-step recovery programs
Similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program, there are 12-step programs available for people with gambling addiction. The most popular one is called Gamblers Anonymous.
You’ll meet with counselors and group members regularly, either once or multiple times per week. You’ll build a support network of people who are recovering from gambling addiction and understand what you’re going through.
Working with a therapist can help identify unhealthy internal and family dynamic patterns that contribute to your compulsive behaviors or addictive tendencies. Therapy is a safe place to address sensitive topics and also builds coping skills.
A 2017 review suggests that cognitive therapy may be helpful for people who live with pathological gambling issues. Other types of therapy that may help treat gambling disorder include:
West adds that trauma-informed mindfulness therapy could also help. It can be used to recognize triggers and help people learn and apply appropriate coping skills.
In some instances, medication may help folks with addictive tendencies, though more research is needed.
A 2019 meta-analysis suggests that the following types of medications may help to manage pathological gambling:
Sometimes, problematic gambling can stem from undiagnosed or underlying mental health conditions. Seeking a diagnosis and treatment can also help you better manage your impulsive behaviors or symptoms of gambling disorder.
“The lie that addiction tells you is that you’re alone, and no one could possibly understand what you’ve done and what you’ve gone through,” says West. “That’s far from the truth.”
There’s plenty of support and understanding available for you.
West says that community support groups, like Gamblers Anonymous and Gam-Anon, offer self-help programs for folks affected by problem gambling. Participation in these programs is usually free.
“Participants can simply show up to meetings, share their experience, and hear from others,” he adds.
Other peer support groups related to addiction and recovery include:
Receiving support from loved ones during the recovery processcan also be healing. It may be challenging to ask for help, but your family members, friends, and partners care about you and want you to find relief.
West notes that when gambling is problematic, it may lead to significant distress for those affected.
For instance, a 2021 study observed over 1,000 adults with gambling disorder, both with and without a history of suicidal behavior.
Results showed that 26.6% of subjects reported suicidal ideation and 6.7% reported suicide attempts. Suicidal ideation was higher for women than men and was more likely to occur among those with greater severity of gambling disorder.
If you’re experiencing negative mental health effects of your gambling habits, hotlines and help organizations are available for support. Advocates can offer resources and assistance to help you cope or connect you with treatment options.
Some hotlines for gambling addiction include:
Other specific support hotlines for transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming folks can be found here.
The best therapy for gambling addiction is different for each person. It ultimately depends on your situation and needs.
“Each journey is unique,” says West. “It starts with speaking to a professional.”
A doctor or therapist can screen you for gambling addiction, refer you to a treatment center or problem gambling counselor, and tailor a personalized treatment plan for you.
To avoid a relapse and focus on building coping skills, it’s important to commit to quitting gambling completely.
Watching a loved one experience the effects of persistent, unhealthy gambling can be upsetting. But if you’re emotionally available for it, there are ways for you to support them through this.
West offers helpful support tips and friendly reminders for you to consider below:
- Don’t enable their behaviors.
- Try to avoid minimizing their financial damage (so they learn a lesson).
- Don’t try to change, control, convince, or bribe them into getting help.
Setting boundaries can also help you minimize the effect on your emotions and wallet.
West offers two approaches to take with the person in your life who has a gambling problem:
- “I love you, but your addiction is too destructive to my life, and I can no longer stay.”
- “I love you. I don’t agree with what you’re doing, and I hope you get help. I’ll stay with you, and I won’t judge you or try to control you. I just hope you come to your senses soon and get help.”
Your experience is valid too. You should choose whichever option feels right for you.
Gambling addiction, gambling disorder, or compulsive gambling can disrupt your life in many ways. But help is available through many different treatment options.
West says we need to destigmatize gambling so that folks dealing with gambling disorder feel more comfortable talking about it. This is a larger conversation and systemic effort. But if you’re wondering how to help someone with a gambling addiction, offering your love and support could be a great start.
If you want to stop gambling but are having a hard time, you may wish to consider seeking help from a mental health professional.
A gambling counselor or therapist who specializes in addiction can help you get to the root of your habits and manage your behaviors to live a healthier, happier life.