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How to Identify a Gambling Addiction

Natalie Frank has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is Managing Editor for Novellas & Serials at LVP Publishers.

Signs someone has a gambling problem

Signs someone has a gambling problem

How to Recognize a Gambling Addiction

Those with gambling problems may bet in a casino, online, or both. They may place wagers on their favorite sports teams, Texas Hold ‘em hands, the roll of the craps dice, or the spin of a roulette wheel. No matter what they play or where they play it, chronic gambling can destroy relationships, lead to job loss, and result in financial ruin. This affects not only the individual but their family members and friends, as well.

Some individuals progress to the point of crossing lines they never thought they would, such as stealing money from friends and family to bet with or pay off their gambling debts. When they run out of options, it is not unusual for friends or family to find themselves paying off debts either because they are legally responsible or because they wish to save the person from embarrassment, incarceration, or financial ruin.

These negative consequences will often destroy the person's closest relationships—leaving them alone and isolated, a condition that further exacerbates their addiction since they seek companionship and excitement to escape their problems. Their judgment becomes impaired such that they don’t see that increasing their gambling behavior is not a rational coping strategy and will only lead to further devastation.

Despite the serious nature of the problem, there is hope. There are many treatment programs available based on a strong, empirical foundation and proven by positive treatment outcomes. Treatment programs can help the person, as well as their family members and loved ones, regain control of their lives, restore friendships and family bonds, and allow them to take care of their financial responsibilities and compensate others as appropriate.

As with all addictions, however, the first step is recognizing that a problem exists. Often, since the individual is under the spell of the addiction, it is up to people who care about the person to help make that happen.

A True Account of Two Accomplished Brothers Who Developed Compulsive Gambling

Double Down is a true account of the frightening ups and downs that are involved in gambling addiction. When Frederick and Steven Barthelme, writers and professors of English at a Mississippi Unversity, lose both of their parents within a short period of each other, they inherited a large amount of money. Within a matter of months, they had gambled away the entire fortune and gone into debt, owing huge sums to people they'd borrowed from. Charged with cheating at several casinos, they were cut off from this world cold-turkey, and while this may have been for the best long term, they share the terror they felt at being ousted from what they had come to depend upon for dealing with their negative emotions, in particular the grief of losing their parents.

This account of the development and maintenance of gambling addiction provides insight into a world loved ones of problem gamblers have never seen. It provides a first-hand look at the lures and triggers for gambling, allowing others to better understand what can contribute to the addiction. Told with honesty, sadness and a touch of humor, this story is not one soon to be forgotten.

Understanding the Addiction

When conceptualizing addictions, most people think only of drugs and alcohol, yet the latest view of these disorders includes other addictions, called process or behavioral addictions. This type of addiction can create equal devastation in one’s life and the lives of loved ones as that which results from substance abuse and addiction. This new way of understanding problem gambling reflects investigations demonstrating that there are numerous similarities between substance addictions and gambling addiction some of which include:

  • How they are expressed
  • Causal factors found within brain functions
  • Other disorders frequently co-occur with the addiction
  • Similar physiological reactions related to the disorders are similar
  • Similar treament methods that are effective for alleviating symptoms
  • The development of tolerance
  • The experience of withdrawal syndrome when the addictive habit is stopped

Recognition of these commonalities may help people with gambling disorder get the most appropriate treatment and services, and can help others better understand the challenges that individuals face in overcoming this disorder. Similar to substance abuse, while the first few times an individual gambles there doesn't seem to be a need to continue, once the addiction has taken hold, it is no longer a matter of simply choosing to stop. There are changes that occur in the individual’s brain, especially in relation to stimulation of the brains pleasure and reward centers that set up strong emotional withdrawal symptoms should the individual attempt to quit. Efforts to cut back or stop gambling may result in severe depression.

Gambling addiction results in the inability to gain control over the urge to gamble even when the individual is aware it is hurting them and their loved ones in multiple ways. Gambling becomes all the person can think about and it is the only activity they want to engage in. This extreme focus on the habit can result in the person losing their job, their friends, their financial resources and can lead to the inability to meet their daily responsibilities. Those with a gambling addiction continue to bet increasing amounts of money regardless of whether they are winning or losing, have the money to bet or not, or are euphoric or depressed. None of the factors which control our behaviors normally through feedback that something needs to be altered affects those with the urge to gamble. Even those who end up incarcerated find ways to gamble while behind bars.

Those who gamble regularly may still have a problem even if they’re not fully dependent on the behavior such that they’ve developed tolerance and the potential for withdrawal syndrome. They do not have to be completely out of control of the behavior for gambling to wreak havoc on their life and the lives of those around them. When gambling disrupts an individual’s life to the degree they aren’t functioning normally in day to day activities, they are neglecting responsibilities, and it is causing them or others distress, gambling is considered a problem.

If someone seems consumed by gambling, spends increasing amounts of time, effort and money engaging in the behavior, betting larger sums the more they lose to try to reclaim the deficit, or gambles despite severe consequences for themselves and others, they likely have a gambling addiction. There are also a number of other more specific signs that you can look for to determine if someone you love may be addicted to gambling.

Signs That Someone May Have a Gambling Problem or Addiction

It is often more difficulty to recognize the specific signs of a gambling addiction compared to a substance abuse addiction as with gambling problems the signs could be due to a number of causes, some of them legitimate. If you are aware of the most common warning signs of gambling addiction you can detect the problem earlier and seek out expert advice regarding the best course of action to take to increase the likelihood of recovery. These signs incorporate financial, scheduling and mood related indicators.

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Financial Signs

  • Money disappearing from wallets, purses, accounts or other investments that don’t belong to the individual but to which they can gain access.
  • Valuable items missing from the homes of friends and relatives
  • Despite being employed the individual is suddenly always short of money when they weren’t previously
  • Constantly borrowing money from others but never seeming to be able to pay them back, while providing a variety of excuses as to why they can’t do so
  • Taking our numerous loans simultaneously
  • Hiding financial information, records or paystubs
  • Frequent inability to pay bills, disconnection warnings or service disruptions for failure to pay
  • Only limited food in the house and the items are not ingredient for meals but more snack-like requiring little to no preparation

Mood and Behavioral Signs

  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Poor work performance
  • Becoming nervous, agitated, irritable or frustrated for no perceptible reason
  • Mentioning feelings of hopelessness, helplessness over their own lives, depression, or suicidal thoughts though without relating them to anything specific (e.g. gambling problems)
  • Notable alterations in personality
  • Decreased sleep and appetite
  • Changes in sexual desire or performance
  • Controlling, manipulative, or threatening behavior aimed at obtaining money from others
  • Using falsehoods or charm to influence others behaviors and willingness to give them money or get them out of trouble
  • Increasing amounts of time spent gambling either at a physical casino or online
  • Hiding reasons for unexplained absenteeism
  • Tardiness for even important commitments
  • Frequently calling in sick or taking unplanned days off
  • Simple errands take an inexplicable amount of time (e.g. buying milk from a nearby store takes 3 hours)
  • Time set aside for simple tasks is unreasonable and the individual may return having not completed the task in question
These signs incorporate financial, scheduling and mood related indicators.

These signs incorporate financial, scheduling and mood related indicators.

Quiz: Are You a Compulsive Gambler?

Take this quiz for yourself or your loved one to determine if there might be a problem. Answer all 20 questions below.

1.Did you ever lose time from work or school due to gambling? Yes No

2.Has gambling ever made your home life unhappy? Yes No

3.Did gambling affect your reputation? Yes No

4.Have you ever felt remorse after gambling? Yes No

5.Did you ever gamble to get money with which to pay debts or otherwise solve financial difficulties? Yes No

6.Did gambling cause a decrease in your ambition or efficiency? Yes No

7.After losing did you feel you must return as soon as possible and win back your losses? Yes No

8.After a win did you have a strong urge to return and win more? Yes No

9.Did you often gamble until your last dollar was gone? Yes No

10.Did you ever borrow to finance your gambling? Yes No

11.Have you ever sold anything to finance gambling? Yes No

12.Were you reluctant to use "gambling money" for normal expenditures? Yes No

13.Did gambling make you careless of the welfare of yourself or your family? Yes No

14.Did you ever gamble longer than you had planned? Yes No

15.Have you ever gambled to escape worry, trouble, boredom, loneliness, grief or loss?

Yes No

16.Have you ever committed, or considered committing, an illegal act to finance gambling? Yes No

17.Did gambling cause you to have difficulty in sleeping? Yes No

18.Do arguments, disappointments or frustrations create within you an urge to gamble? Yes No

19.Did you ever have an urge to celebrate any good fortune by a few hours of gambling? Yes No

20.Have you ever considered self-destruction or suicide as a result of your gambling? Yes No

[Taken from Gamblers Anonymous]

Gambling can quickly turn into a serious issue.

Gambling can quickly turn into a serious issue.

How to Be There for Someone Struggling

It may seem like gambling is an activity people choose to engage in—and that they are just being irresponsible when the behavior begins to cause problems. However, problem gambling is a serious illness, just like other substance-abuse addictions. It is important to keep in mind that once the addictive process has been established, the individual likely has little control over their gambling.

In fact, it is likely that their gambling behavior has taken control of their life. It may seem impossible that the individual isn't aware that they are hurting others with their behavior. However, the same rule of addiction holds true for this fact as well: the individual may be aware of how their behavior is affecting others, and that they are even losing relationships due to their gambling, but they still find themselves unable to quit.

If you suspect that someone you know and love may be suffering from a gambling addiction, the first step you can take is to learn about this problem. For the moment, try to put aside the ways in which their behavior may have negatively impacted you. While you may feel hurt, abandoned, used, or manipulated, remember that this is an illness, and that standard 12-step programs include phases of restitution and making amends, which will occur later on. Strive to find a way to understand your loved one's perspective, and approach the problem from where they are, regardless of your own personal beliefs about their gambling problems.

When a person feels that those they care about are doing their best to suspend judgment and criticism—and are just trying to be with them in the moment as they explain what they are experiencing—this opens the channels of communication. Try to identify something you went through in your own life that you can relate to their problems. This will help you better empathize, and allow you to have some compassion for and understanding of their difficulties. They will feel a stronger sense of connection to you, and a stronger sense of trust in your relationship.

Helping your loved one feel understood will increase their willingness to discuss their problems openly and honestly. This will allow you to process the situation with them and create a plan of action collaboratively that meets their needs as well as those of others who are being regularly impacted by their addiction. Just like other serious addiction disorders, gambling addiction generally requires professional intervention to alleviate. Yet even when the individual is being treated with the most effective, empirically validated approach available, the most critical element determining the individual’s treatment outcome is the involvement of friends and family members throughout the recovery process.

Your support, understanding, acceptance, and commitment to remain involved may have a significant impact on your loved one's ability to beat their habit. Ultimately, it is the constant encouragement, reinforcement, and presence of supportive friends and family that will provide the necessary strength to fight off the addiction demons and attain a life filled with happiness, satisfaction, and community.

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

Question: Are there personality disorders that make someone more likely to develop a gambling addiction?

Answer: There have been a number of studies conducted in the past decade examining pathological gambling and personality disorders. When looking at the two together, it seems that they often go hand in hand. When the comorbidity of personality and gambling disorders has been studied through systematic reviews and meta-analysis, the prevalence rate of any personality disorder for those with gambling addictions was 43 percent while the prevalence rate of antisocial personality disorder specifically was 29 percent.

There is also quite a bit of evidence that Cluster B personality disorders (antisocial, borderline, histrionic and narcissistic personality disorders) are the most common personality disorders to be found in people with pathological gambling. Borderline personality disorder is the most prevalent, and it is believed to predate the gambling problems in most cases. Thus, it is considered to be a major risk factor for developing problem gambling. Having a personality disorder has been associated with more severe gambling problems and an early age of onset of pathological gambling.

One of the main personality features of pathological gambling is impulsivity. Impulsivity is a basic aspect of people’s personality, and higher levels of impulsivity can influence the development of disorders that involve problems with impulse control disorder including pathological gambling. Problems controlling impulses, being unable to delay gratification, risk-taking and sensation seeking are other personality characteristics frequently found in pathological gamblers. The other major personality trait found in pathological gamblers is antisocial behavior. Antisocial behavior is also related to impulse control problems.

Other personality factors have been found in pathological gamblers as well. When using the Five Factor Personality typology, pathological gamblers have been found to be high in neuroticism and low in agreeableness and conscientiousness.

Neurotic individuals tend to experience negative emotions, such as anxiety, depression, and annoyance, rather than being emotionally stable. They tend to be hostile and get angry easily and are self-conscious, being easily intimidated. Neurotic individuals are impulsive, acting quickly without thought, sometimes in an effort to relieve their negative emotional state and they are highly vulnerable, panicking easily with little provocation. People who are high on neuroticism have great difficulty bouncing back after experiencing a major stressor. This can be a big problem as they experience moderate and sometimes even mild levels of stress as much worse than most others.

Those who are low in neuroticism are calm, more emotionally stable, not as likely to overreact when experiencing stress and are generally happier than their counterparts. They are able to tolerate the normal hassles and disruptions in life and have the coping skills to rebound after a major problem in their lives.

Individuals who are agreeable are friendly and co-operative. They are usually well-liked by their peers and colleagues, and they are comfortable trusting others. They tend to be helpful when others are in need and are described as more altruistic than non-agreeable people. Agreeable people don’t like conflict or being involved in arguments, and they will do what they can to appease and pacify others, often being looked to as the peacekeeper of their social group.

Disagreeable people tend to be less trusting and more suspicious of others. They are less helpful to others, being more motivated to act according to their own self-interests. Because of this, they are seen as more selfish than agreeable people. These characteristics cause those who are disagreeable to have poorer and less satisfactory relationships than agreeable people. This compounds the problem as social support buffers us from stress and stress increases people’s tendency to be disagreeable.

People who are conscientious are aware of the consequences of their behavior and act in ways that are well thought out. They are careful to follow through on things that have been assigned to them or that they have volunteered for. They follow through on their commitments and are dependable. They feel a sense of responsibility towards others. They set goals and do what it takes to achieve them. Someone with a low level of conscientiousness is less motivated and less responsible in their actions. They are more relaxed in setting and meeting goals and more impulsive. They often act on a spur of the moment whim rather than making well thought out choices.

Other Resources That May Be of Interest

Brown, M., Oldenhof, E., Allen, J. S., & Dowling, N. A. (2016). An empirical study of personality disorders among treatment-seeking problem gamblers. Journal of gambling studies, 32(4), 1079-1100.

De Raad, B. (2000). The Big Five Personality Factors: The psycholexical approach to personality. Hogrefe & Huber Publishers.

Dowling, N. A., Cowlishaw, S., Jackson, A. C., Merkouris, S. S., Francis, K. L., & Christensen, D. R. (2015). The prevalence of comorbid personality disorders in treatment-seeking problem gamblers: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of personality disorders, 29(6), 735-754.

MacLaren, V. V., Best, L. A., Dixon, M. J., & Harrigan, K. A. (2011). Problem gambling and the five factor model in university students. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(3), 335-338.

Mishra, S., Lalumière, M. L., & Williams, R. J. (2010). Gambling as a form of risk-taking: Individual differences in personality, risk-accepting attitudes, and behavioral preferences for risk. Personality and Individual Differences, 49(6), 616-621.

Odlaug, B. L., Schreiber, L. R., & Grant, J. E. (2013). Personality dimensions and disorders in pathological gambling. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 26(1), 107-112.

Roccas, S., Sagiv, L., Schwartz, S. H., & Knafo, A. (2002). The big five personality factors and personal values. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 28(6), 789-801.

Turner, D., Sebastian, A., & Tüscher, O. (2017). Impulsivity and cluster B personality disorders. Current psychiatry reports, 19(3), 15.

Vaddiparti, K., & Cottler, L. B. (2017). Personality disorders and pathological gambling. Current opinion in psychiatry, 30(1), 45-49.

© 2017 Natalie Frank


Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on January 04, 2017:

I think they are two different things but they can definitely overlap. I think borderlines would become addicted to gambling if it gained them wanted attention. Also if it made them feel part of a group and if they could manipulate the situation so to split groups that seem particularly close. Not to mention if someone they are attached to becomes involved in gambling. Female borderlines are famous for being attracted to men with antisocial personality disorder, and there is an obvious overlap between APD and gambling. Borderlines would drop gambling if it seemed to earn them negative attention they couldn't control or manipulate or if they couldn't draw someone they were attached to into the gambling world. So I don't know how much it is gambling per se as gambling is another activity which their personality difficulties would become apparent in. Of course, that applies to all of their activities and the desire to engage in any type of activity is controlled by their own ability to manipulate things and people according to their desire and satisfaction and avoid being abandoned by significant others they are attached to. It is also likely with gambling that at some point sooner or later they will do something that will cause a significant scene, e.g. cutting or burning themselves etc. that will get them barred from one or more public gambling establishments. Due to the absence of in person interaction which is what triggers and controls everything in their lives, Borderlines would not likely find online gambling particularly engaging. Thanks for the comment and let me know your thoughts on this.

John A. Jaksich on January 04, 2017:

Insightful article-- I am curious how deeply the symptoms of 'Borderline Personality Disorder' can be similar to 'gambling addiction?' Or-- do the symptoms of BPD just seem to mirror many of traits that gamblers seem to have? Both instances seem to lead to disastrous interpersonal relations...

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