What It Takes to Quit Gambling
For most people, gambling is an occasional thrill. Whether it’s a lost weekend in Las Vegas or throwing a few bucks on a Superbowl grid each year, betting is just short-term fun—win or lose, they walk away and get on with their lives. But for some people—an estimated 8 million people, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG)—gambling isn’t just an occasional lark or casual entertainment.
For people who exhibit the signs of “pathological gambling,” a mental disorder first defined by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, it’s a destructive, punishing addiction that ruins their finances, relationships, and mental health. And the destructive power of gambling addiction doesn’t end with the individual—like any other addiction, gambling is associated with many knock-on effects, including spousal and child abuse and suicide.
Problem gambling is under-studied, and there’s a lack of data around the condition. But with the rise of online gambling and the increasingly legalized betting in many states in this country—the gaming industry brought in close to $45 billion in the first three quarters of 2022 alone—gambling addiction is undoubtedly a growing problem. Dealing with that problem is an uphill battle for two big reasons: The perception of problem gambling in society, and a lack of coherent support.
Signs of a gambling problem
The line between an enthusiastic gambler and a problem gambler can be frustratingly blurry. Just as some folks can drink alcohol socially and even go nuts now and then without being alcoholics, some people can gamble regularly and not have a problem. Since society tends to view gambling as a fun, glamorous, and largely victimless activity, the most difficult part about dealing with gambling addiction is understanding that you have one in the first place.
How can you know whether you’re dealing with pathological gambling? If you stop to think about it, the signs can be clear:
- The amounts you’re betting have consistently risen as you chase a diminishing thrill (many people with a gambling addiction get to a point where it’s not even fun anymore—they’re just satisfying an urge)
- A sense of restlessness when you’re not gambling
- Failed attempts to control your gambling
- Finding yourself gambling in response to negative emotions or events
- Chasing losses: Betting larger amounts in an effort to get back what you’ve lost
- Financial problems—people with a healthy relationship with gambling do not liquidate their 401ks or steal money from their friends to pay debts or place bets
- Lying to people about your gambling behaviors
- Damaging relationships through dishonesty, borrowing money, or other behaviors solely to sustain your gambling
Being able to recognize these destructive patterns is crucial—the old cliché about the first step being admitting you have a problem is true. If you’re telling yourself that you’re just experiencing some bad luck, or that your behavior isn’t abnormal, you’re not going to be able to deal with your gambling problem. But a gambling problem is a mental disorder, and many gambling addicts are very, very bad at conceptualizing how much money (and other things) they’ve actually lost.
Even after admitting to the problem, though, problem gamblers are facing an uphill battle.
The problems with treating gambling addiction
There are four essential challenges facing anyone seeking help for a gambling problem:
- Cultural resistance. Most people simply don’t see a gambling addiction in the same way as a substance abuse problem. Gambling is as pervasively promoted in popular culture as drinking, for example, but there’s a stubborn belief that people who gamble destructively are simply weak or stupid. As noted by The New York Times, advertisements for gambling sites and apps and casinos are everywhere, normalizing the activity.
- A lack of infrastructure.According to Keith Whyte, executive director of the NCPG, “We didn’t have a good problem gambling infrastructure in place prior to the expansion of sports betting, and we still don’t.” There simply isn’t an organized and consistent collection of services for people to turn to. Instead we have an ad-hoc collection of groups, emergency hotlines, and approaches. There are also exactly zero Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved treatments for gambling disorders.
- Ease of access. Prior to the 1990s, gambling wasn’t so easy to engage in. Legal gambling was restricted to a few areas of the country, and illegal gambling wasn’t always so easy to find. But today you can download an app and be gambling in minutes, making any attempt at “cold turkey” quitting more challenging.
- Co-disorders. A gambling addiction is frequently associated with other disorders, including substance abuse issues, depression, and conditions like bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These can conspire to make recognizing and treating a gambling addiction even more difficult.
As a result, treating a gambling addiction is challenging even if you know you need help. But if gambling is negatively impacting your life, it’s crucial to try.
Where to get help for gambling addiction
If you think you have a gambling addiction and want to seek help, there are resources:
- Make the call. There are hotlines you can call that can point you toward treatment resources. You can call or text the NCPG at 1-800-522-4700, or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-4357, for example. Both offer anonymous counseling and referrals so you can find treatment centers, support groups, or other assistance in your area.
- Talk to friends and family. Hiding your gambling and losses is an unhealthy behavior that reinforces the negative patterns. Admitting to your problem is a crucial step—and one former gambling addict stresses total honesty, noting that when he initially came clean to his spouse he held back one particularly embarrassing debt and later regretted the dishonesty.
- Exclusion. Access is a key challenge for people with gambling problems. Many people find “self-exclusion” to be a good first step, limiting their exposure and access to casinos and gambling sites and apps. For some, going to a rehab facility where they can be literally cut off from this access is crucial, but others have tried to do it on their own using apps like GamBan or BetBlocker that block all gambling sites on their devices. You can also talk to your bank about blocking payments to specific sites, adding one extra layer of difficulty for you if you weaken in your resolve. You can also contact the places where you make bets and ask about pausing your access or establishing betting limits to at least exert some control over your gambling—though you should be mindful of the fact that such attempts to control your gambling are themselves a sign of a problem.
- Rewiring. Psychologists say that gambling addiction involves a “rewiring” of your brain, resulting in gambling being the only source of pleasure for an addict. This often results in boredom leading to gambling activities. One way to battle this is to keep yourself occupied to avoid empty spaces in your day that you might fill with gambling, and finding alternative activities. Rekindling interest in a hobby or activity you enjoyed prior to your involvement with gambling is often a particularly effective way of filling this void.
- Find a 12-step group. Problem gambling is an addiction that affects the brain similarly to substance abuse, and many of the tools used to fight substance abuse are just as effective for pathological gambling. A 12-step group can offer a structure for your recovery, guidance and advice, and in-person support.
Recovering from a gambling addiction is a challenge—but resources are out there. Once you realize you have a problem, the next step is to seek them out.