Problem Gambling Explained
Of all the behavioural addictions – indeed, all addictions generally – that might afflict a person, there is little doubt that the one with the potential to cause the greatest financial damage, over the shortest time, is gambling. Known since ancient times to be capable of bringing even the very richest person down into complete destitution, the perils of gambling are hardly an unknown phenomenon; it is only comparatively recently, however, that gambling addiction has come to be studied and treated as a distinct disorder, rather than simply dismissed as an unfortunate vice to which only the weak and foolish succumb.
Perhaps it may be said that these developments are “better late than never”, considering the remarkable proliferation of gambling outlets on Britain’s streets, and the explosion of online betting which now means that anyone with a phone and the appropriate apps is only ever a few finger-swipes away from placing bets which could lead to ruin. Unlike substance abuse, where an addict’s intake is limited by physiology and their body’s ability to cope with a given quantity of drink or drugs – with death potentially resulting from excessive consumption – the only factor limiting a gambler’s potential outlay, and thus potential losses, is how much money they can access: extremely quickly, no matter how wealthy they may be to begin with, a person can lose everything they own – including their family home.
According to a 2017 report by the Gambling Commission, over 430,000 Britons are now addicted to gambling with a further 2 million at risk of addiction, and although some small steps have since been taken by leading gambling firms to address the problem – or, at least, to appear to do so – this huge industry shows few signs of genuine reform and continues to be a remarkably lucrative arena for those organisations – at the expense of countless individuals for whom the thrill of the bet and the prospect of that elusive big win have proven impossible to resist.
Although in order to be diagnosed as having a “gambling disorder” according to the DSM-V a patient needs to display certain symptoms within a given period , and although other diagnosing authorities may have their own conditions requiring to be met, because our understanding of behavioural addiction continues to evolve and because it may manifest itself in very different ways from one person to another, many doctors may consider a patient to be suffering from a gambling addiction even if they do not meet such strict criteria. Fundamentally, if someone is gambling regardless of the harm being caused to themselves or others, and finding it difficult or impossible to stop gambling, they may need treatment for their condition.
Other Names for Gambling Addiction
Various terms are used to describe the condition of gambling addiction; it is common to hear about “problem gambling” (which seems to suggest slightly less entrenched behaviour, and by being less “medical” in nature can have the effect of downplaying the problem) or “compulsive gambling”, while “ludomania” (from the Latin words for “game” and “madness”) is a term which has traditionally been used by doctors without necessarily representing a formally agreed set of diagnostic criteria. “Pathological gambling” and “gambling disorder” may be diagnosed, as noted above, when various criteria are met (though again different authorities may use different criteria).
Although less likely to found in a clinical setting, a large number of synonyms for “gambling” may also be encountered, such as betting, wagering and others; in the UK “betting” in particular is widely used, and terms such as “problem betting” can be considered interchangeable with any of the terms mentioned previously. Because “betting” does not have the stigma associated with the word “gambling” – even though they are effectively synonymous – gambling companies and bookmakers are much more likely to use “betting” in their advertisements and in any material they may produce relating to problem gambling.
Myths and facts about Problem Gambling
Even if a person’s gambling is not currently costing them money – or even if it is making them a profit – it can still be extremely damaging to their relationships and life prospects (especially if their attention is primarily focused upon gambling at the expense of other activities or other people, or if they’re experiencing disruptions to sleeping and eating patterns, high levels of stress and other factors associated with gambling which can have negative health consequences. Furthermore, as part of a broader pattern, intense and/or prolonged gambling almost invariably results in an overall loss, and successful periods may not be representative of an unsuccessful whole.
“If you’re not betting every day, it’s not a problem”
Some gambling addicts may bet infrequently (though nevertheless the scale of those bets may be dangerous). It isn’t the frequency of the gambling that is the problem: it’s the impact upon the gambler and those around them.
“It’s not a problem if I can afford it”
As mentioned above, gambling can have profound consequences in ways other than financial ones. Moreover, a person may start off making bets they can easily afford, only to increase the stakes to very problematic levels once addiction has taken hold: just because you can afford it now doesn’t mean that will always be the case.
“Gambling addicts are criminals”
It is perfectly possible to suffer from a gambling addiction without ever engaging in criminal activity. Unfortunately, some people – perhaps burdened with debt or unable to hide losses from loved ones – are tempted to commit crime to raise or pay back money, but this is not an inevitable development.
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Why People Gamble
Although this is not the case every society, here in the UK gambling has traditionally been considered a comparatively harmful vice, and betting (led by the horseracing industry) has been legalised and regulated for many years. Anyone over the age of 18 can go to the bookmakers, walk into a casino or gamble online perfectly legally; this has given rise to a situation where we are now surrounded – not just on the High Street, but on television and even in the devices we carry around constantly everyday – by opportunities to bet (one of the biggest challenges facing recovering addicts).
Despite the general awareness of the damage which can be caused by problem gambling, occasional betting itself does not necessarily have any stigma attached – indeed, betting on the Grand National especially has come to be seen almost as an annual national tradition – so there are none of the offputting or discouraging social factors associated with starting to gamble which may accompany, for example, taking hard drugs (even though the possible financial consequences can be equally cataclysmic).
Gambling is associated with excitement – making otherwise potentially relevant events (especially sporting events) much more significant to you personally by making you literally invested in the outcome; indeed, many betting companies have traditionally emphasised this in their marketing material (“It means more when there’s money on it”). The thrill of a football match, a close race, or an intense boxing bout can be extreme, almost primal – but unless you are devoted to your team to an absurd and problematic degree, the result will typically mean very little in terms of its effect on your daily life. Even a small wager, however, can change that: the experience of watching even the most exciting football match will not give you hard cash in your pocket, whereas with betting you may feel all the thrills of spectating followed by the pleasure of having made money.
Of course, not all gambling comes from watching sport, and it’s easy to exaggerate the relationship between the thrill of gambling and things such as high-profile sporting events which are intended to be exciting in their own right: someone may first begin to gamble on fruit machines in pubs, or playing cards with friends, and these are activities in which there is really little or no “thrill” beyond that of the gambling itself. However, as any gambling addict is likely to testify, that particular thrill can become much more intense – indeed, life-changing – than any sport you may see live or on television.
Initially, people begin to gamble because of the pleasure of winning – it’s often been said that someone whose first couple of experiences of gambling lead to unpleasant losses is unlikely ever to develop a gambling problem going forward (though that negative reinforcement, unfortunately, ceases to have an effect once gambling has become habitual), whereas one of the worst things that can happen to somebody is for them to experience a couple of big wins at a young age – but the winning itself is only one of two main pleasures (and, counterintuitively, the less important of the two) typically produced by gambling: the other is the thrill of the risk, and indeed it is this sensation which is usually the biggest driver of addiction and the one craved by the brain of a gambling addict. In other words, we may start off gambling for the pleasure of winning, but we continue for the pleasure of gambling itself.
Types of Problem Gambling
In principle, any kind of gambling may lead to an addiction, because it is the pattern of behaviour around anticipating and then placing a bet, and subsequently anticipating a result, which becomes habitual and then addictive; it is possible, though rare, for gambling of a non-financial type (for instance betting forfeits, or taking risks with one’s health and safety: Russian roulette may be considered an extreme example) to lead to an addiction.
However, most gambling does involve risking money and understandably it is this sort of betting around which the gambling industry has revolved. In the UK, the most prominent – and damaging – types of gambling include sports betting (including horseracing and spread betting), and events betting (for example gambling on election results) with bets able to be placed either inside bricks-and-mortar bookmakers or online; fruit machines and fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs – usually within betting shops or casinos); casino and card games (with versions also available online); and lotteries and scratchcards.
Although not typically described as such, certain types of investing – for example in the stock market – may also have many characteristics of gambling and can lead to the emergence of similar behavioural patterns and problems.
Stages of a Gambling Addiction
Although it is crucial to recognise that every case of addiction is unique, experts often divide the evolution of a gambling addiction into a few key stages.
Desperation After a while betting can become the focal point of the gambler’s life, with many of their life prospects potentially damaged or ruined altogether as a result of their losses and the impact of their addiction upon their daily life and even most treasured relationships. They are unable to stop gambling even with the very last of their money, or with sums they may have borrowed to buy food and other necessities. They may engage in crime – fraud, theft or other forms – in order to fund their habit, and could possibly be in danger as a result of loans they may have taken out in order to fund gambling and repay other debts. Complete destitution is not by any means an impossibility, while many gamblers who have reached this point may engage in suicidal ideation, or even attempt suicide, in the face of what they see as a hopeless situation.
Causes of Problem Gambling
Although the mechanisms through which gambling addiction – and behavioural addictions generally – takes hold in terms of brain chemistry are increasingly well (though still imperfectly) understood, our understanding of why those mechanisms manifest in some people and not others is still comparatively limited.
It is generally accepted that both genetic and environmental factors are at play: there is a hereditary element to addiction which means that someone with a family history of addiction is themselves more likely to become an addict, but this is not applicable in every case; meanwhile, we are aware of a great many factors in someone’s upbringing and later life which are known to increase the risk of addiction, but again while these factors can be decisive in one person they may not lead to any addiction in another.
It is clear however that the more someone is exposed to gambling (especially at a young age) the greater the likelihood that they will at least begin to gamble – and of course without starting gambling in the first place a gambling addiction will not manifest, although it is again always important to remember that gambling once or even many times will not automatically cause an addiction.
How The Brain Gets Addicted to Gambling
behaviours,the reward system will become imbalanced, causing a depletion of dopamine and other chemicals (and consequently various unpleasant feelings and, potentially, withdrawal symptoms) until and unless either the behaviour is repeated, or enough time has passed that the brain has been able to rebalance (which is why abstaining from behaviours such as gambling for prolonged periods is both vital if the addiction is to be broken, and incredibly difficult to achieve).
Moreover, over time this reward system imbalance means that a person often needs to engaging increasingly intense behaviour – for example, in the case of gambling addiction, to place ever greater and more consequential bets – in order to achieve the same effects which previously would have been the result of less intense, less risky activity.
Signs & Symptoms of Problem Gambling
As with any addiction, an addict may go to great lengths to conceal their condition, and unlike in the case of many substance abuse disorders there may be few if any physical signs. On the other hand, a very damaging gambling addiction can be just as catastrophic to a person’s lifestyle and wealth as any drug addiction – perhaps even more so as their expenditure will not be limited by their physical capacity for substances of abuse. Therefore in most serious cases a visible deterioration will be identifiable.
The emotional strain of being a gambling addict can be profound, especially if and when losses are racked up which will have a significant impact on the life of the addict and on those around them, especially close family. Volatile mood swings are common and depression is extremely likely to manifest over time, along with a markedly more pessimistic outlook and demeanour. Complete emotional collapse is not uncommon, while bouts of tears and/or aggression are typical. On the other hand, in the aftermath of a big win, the addict is likely to be on an emotional high. Gambling can produce symptoms resembling those of bipolar disorder or mania, with all the associated risks of self-harm and/or suicide.
While gambling addiction does not present physical symptoms in the same way as substance abuse disorders typically involve visible intoxication, there may well be a pronounced physical impact on the addict: for example, long periods without sleep and extremely irregular eating patterns – both of which may result from long binges of gambling – can cause a range of visible physical problems including tics, fainting, seizures, malnutrition and many more. Even in less extreme cases, a general deterioration of physical appearance may be identifiable.
As and when a gambling addiction begins to have serious financial consequences, moreover, this is likely to become visible in the form of deteriorating clothing and a shabby appearance generally, as well as decreased levels of hygiene. It is important to note that gambling often co-occurs with other addictions, especially alcoholism, which may present their own physical symptoms.
As with many addictions, problem gambling can cause very significant changes to a person’s behaviour and, eventually, to their character. Lying and secrecy typically go hand-in-hand with the emergence of addiction as the gambler attempts to conceal their habits and, especially, losses. Sleeping and eating patterns may change, while they may lose interest in previously treasured activities and people, and form new peer groups or descend into isolation. Depending on the specific type of gambling involved, they may become obsessive about data or probabilities. Work may be negatively affected by tardiness, absenteeism, declining concentration and cognitive faculties, and possibly a use of work facilities to gamble.
They are likely constantly to be asking to borrow money, while on the other hand they may be occasionally extremely flush with money and engaging in very liberal spending. They are also very likely frequently to be preoccupied and taciturn, and possibly very depressed, adopting a very negative demeanour and potentially feeling animosity towards the world at large because of what they see as their very bad luck.
As previously noted, gambling has the potential to be the most expensive form of addiction, with no theoretical upper limit on losses beyond how much money an addict can access in any way. Typically an addict is likely to be short of or entirely without cash on a frequent basis, often needing to borrow money to fund the basics of life. They may burn through even valuable assets very quickly, even those which technically are being shared with partners. They may be unable to obtain credit legitimately, and could have a history of default or bankruptcy. Some problem gamblers engage in financial crime to fund their habits or cover losses.
Signs of problem gambling in youth
Despite typically having less access to cash than their adult counterparts, and theoretically being unable to gamble legally, young people are nevertheless at risk of developing gambling addictions. Lying about whereabouts and finances, constantly requesting pocket money, selling possessions and/or engaging in criminal activity (including stealing from parents) to fund their habits, increasing emotional volatility and depression, absenteeism from school, pronounced isolation, interrupted sleep patterns and a lot of interest in previously treasured hobbies and companions may all be indicative of the emergence of gambling addiction – though other causes may also be identified.
Short-Term and Long-Term Impacts of Gambling Addiction
The impact of a gambling addiction on a gambler’s relationships with others is typically extremely detrimental: even merely being around someone in the throes of such an addiction can be very distressing, so even when a gambler is not retreating into isolation (and potentailly depression) they may find themselves bereft of company, even that of hitherto treasured friends. Meanwhile, the financial implications for a spouse/partner of a gambling addict, and any children or other dependents, can be terrifying – especially in cases where both parties share ownership of important assets such as a house. History is littered with tales of gambling addicts who have left not just themselves but their families out on the street, while even short of such tragedy relationships can be irreparably damaged by the deceit and volatile behaviour which can often accompany a gambling addiction.
The health consequences of problem gambling can also be permanent, with depression frequently leading to self-harm and suicide, and physical health suffering as a result of issues related to stress, unhealthy dietary and sleeping patterns and other factors; gambling addictions often cooccur with substance abuse disorderswhich of course have their own implications for physical and mental health. A gambler’s health and safety (and even those of loved ones) can also be in jeopardy if they resort to unorthodox funding methods such as borrowing from potentially violent loan sharks, and/or acts of crime.
Meanwhile, less dramatically but by no means unimportantly, a gambler’s credit score can of course be permanently affected (whilst bankruptcy can have even greater implications), and their reputation can quickly be destroyed: once someone gains a reputation for being a problem gambler (or “degenerate”, in more judgemental terms) it can be impossible to shake it off, and many people are unwilling to place any trust in a gambling addict as they fear it may be betrayed as soon as their backs are turned.
Co-occuring Disorders in Gambling Addiction
Gambling addiction frequently occurs alongside other mental health conditions, and indeed other addictions. The extent to which gambling addiction is a result of, a cause of, or simply coincides with, any other disorder/s (known as “comorbidity”) obviously varies from one individual to another, and there is no universal rule which states that someone with a gambling addiction will also certainly have any other given disorder.
Typically, the most common disorders resulting (with a decent degree of certainty) from gambling addiction include anxiety disorders, depression and other mood disorders, and substance abuse disorders, though a huge variety of other conditions have also been associated with gambling addiction (for instance, kleptomania, perhaps initially resulting from a need to acquire money, but eventually becoming a clinical condition in its own right).
It is perhaps less easy to establish causal connections between pre-existing conditions and gambling addiction, and again every case is unique, with no certainty that someone with a given disorder will become a gambling addict if exposed to gambling. However, various studies show that people with bipolar disorder and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as well as certain personality disorders, are significantly more likely than average to develop gambling addictions.
Problem Gambling and Substance Abuse
Those gambling for the thrill of it, at least initially, are more likely than the average to crave thrills of other kinds too, with stimulants such as cocaine (which can also make the user feel more confident in their own judgement) and other euphoria-inducing substances especially popular; alcohol, meanwhile, is both ubiquitous and legal in the UK, and its disinhibitory effects mean those under the influence of are much more likely than normal to begin, or continue, gambling. Heavy gamblers may resort to stimulants to stay awake during prolonged bouts of gambling (for example at gaming tables or playing cards online).
Substance abuse is often a response to depression and other disorders which can result from gambling (especially from heavy losses). the image of a gambler “drowning his/her sorrows” in a bottle of spirits may be a very tired cliche, but it’s no less accurate for that, and as gambling addiction takes hold and a gambler’s life circumstances deteriorate they are ever more likely to seek consolation in drink and drugs. Such self-medication may make for a pleasant short-term fix but in the long term will only lead to a vicious circle of deeper depression, more volatile behaviour, and greater desperation.
Treatment for Gambling Addiction
One of the silver linings to the dark cloud that is the UK’s current gambling addiction epidemic is a greatly increased understanding of the problem, and a rapid rise in the number and capability of organisations and facilities treating the condition. Through a combination of therapy (especially cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), motivational therapy (MT) and motivational interviewing (MI)), medication (where appropriate to treat underlying conditions and complications arising from addiction), support groups and more, it is possible for even the most desperate and dedicated gambler to turn his/her life around.
A number of private residential rehabilitation (“rehab”) facilities across the country now treat gambling addiction (either by itself or alongside other addictions) while the NHS and some charities offer treatment services of various types. If you are struggling with a gambling addiction, no matter how serious your condition and how devastating its impact has been on you and yours, it is never too late to seek help – and help is out there.
Self-help for problem gambling
As with any addiction, the process of recovering from a gambling addiction can only begin once you are able to recognise and admit to your condition. When you reach that point, your first port of call should be your GP, who can give a preliminary assessment and discuss next steps with you; you may also wish to consult an addiction specialist, who may have a greater understanding of the specific challenges you face and of the treatment organisations and facilities which may be most appropriate for you.
While it is always recommended to seek professional help, you may wish to attempt to tackle your addiction independently, and a great variety of approaches are available: you can find a huge amount of information online, while numerous relevant books can be found on the shelves of local bookshops and libraries. Do be careful, however: while many good-natured people have done tremendous work in this field, scammers and con artists are also unfortunately numerous, and you should not make any investment in self-help material without first doing research. Again, your GP or an addiction specialist can discuss these approaches with you and perhaps give recommendations.
Dealing with gambling problems
As noted throughout this article, gambling addiction can have permanent consequences for your life prospects and relationships, and unfortunately some problems you may have encountered may well already be insuperable. It is vital to minimise any damage done and to avoid doing further damage; because of this the sooner you are able to reach out to help the better your long-term prospects will be.
In the meantime, make sure to visit your GP to discuss any health problems – physical or mental – which you believe may have already arisen, while psychotherapy – even standalone, and distinct from the kind of holistic treatment plan which may be offered by a rehab – may help you approach some of the other difficulties caused by your gambling addiction.
If your addiction has already led to serious financial difficulties, there are various charities set up specifically to assist here while Citizens Advice has a great deal of information on coping with debt. You may also benefit from participation in self-help groups such as Gamblers Anonymous; once again, an addiction specialist should be able to help here.
Coping with relapse
As with any addiction, the temptation to relapse is likely to be a significant problem for a long time after your last episode of gambling – indeed, combating relapse is probably the single most important element of recovery. A treatment programme such as that provided at a rehab will give you various psychological mechanisms against relapse, as may a psychotherapist specialising in the treatment of addiction.
If you do relapse, however, do not despair or punish yourself unduly for it; it is rare for someone to make it through recovery whilst never once having relapsed, and being overly hard on yourself should you do so only makes it more likely that you will sink back into a vicious circle. Stay calm, if possible reach back out to any therapists or other professionals who have helped you previously, and focus on a positive future rather than the negativity of relapse.
Prevention for Problem Gambling
Prevention is better than cure, and the best way to prevent a gambling addiction from occurring is never to start gambling! However, if you have already done so you should not feel yourself condemned to a life spent gambling and regretting. Instead it is vital to avoid engaging in more problematic behaviour where possible.
Key steps you can take include (among many others) recognising your triggers (and avoiding them where possible); distancing yourself from fellow gambling addicts; blocking yourself from gambling websites and apps (self-exclusion); avoiding, where possible, walking past bookmakers or casinos; only carrying the bare minimum of cash; staying away from substance abuse; and having a sponsor or similar individual who you can contact if you feel yourself in danger of relapsing.
Participation in self-help groups is certainly a great help to many, while an addiction specialist can discuss your situation specifically and give advice on how to resist temptation – as well as sharing information on treatment options should you feel that you need that degree of help.
Finding Alternatives to Gambling
However, once again everyone is unique and an activity which is enjoyable for one person may be extremely tedious – or physically impossible – for another. There is no need to be excessively prescriptive when considering alternative activities; the important thing is to find something you enjoy doing; that does not trigger you or make you think about gambling or other compulsive behaviours; that does not put you on the wrong side of the law or further alienate you from loved ones; and that does not prove too stressful or in other ways jeopardise your stability and mental health.
Once again, you may wish to speak with your GP about activities which might be appropriate for your physical condition, and with an addiction specialist who may be able to suggest options based on his/her experience with other addicts.
Are you a Problem Gambler? 10 Questions to Answer
Some self-help groups and charities provide a questionnaire to potential members and applicants worried that they may be addicted to gambling. Typical questions may include:
- Have you ever lost a job as a result of gambling?
- Have you ever lost an important relationship as a result of gambling?
- Has gambling negatively affected your reputation?
- Have you ever borrowed money to gamble which you have then been unable to pay off?
- Have you ever gambled in order to pay off debts?
- Have you or any loved ones ever gone hungry because you have gambled away food money?
- Have you ever sold a treasured item to finance gambling?
- Have you ever committed a crime to finance gambling?
- Do you feel the urge to gamble when you are unhappy?
- Do you feel unhappy with yourself after you have gambled?
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Gambling Addiction Facts/Statistics
- There are over 400,000 gambling addicts in the UK, with a further 2 million at risk.
- The gambling industry in the UK was worth £14.4 billion in the year to March 2018.
- In September 2018 there were over 8,400 gambling shops in the UK.
- Some 48% of men, and 41% of women, have gambled in one form or another in the last month.
- On average, half of those suffering from a gambling addiction will commit crime to feed their addiction.
- The estimated proportion of gambling addicts suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) ranges from 12% to 29%.
- Gambling addicts are more likely to commit suicide than those suffering from any other form of addiction.
Ready to get help?
If you are struggling with a gambling addiction, and need help, rest assured that help is indeed out there for anyone able to admit to their condition. No matter how long you’ve been an addict, how much you gamble, or what the effects upon your life have been, it is never too late to change and to get back onto the path to a happy healthy life.
As the gambling crisis in the UK has deepened and touched more and more lives, so too has the ability of medical authorities and experts to treat the condition become more sophisticated and resulted in more success. Wherever you are in the country your GP will be able to give you advice and support, while addiction specialists can discuss treatment options and next steps. Do not despair: gambling need not win.
Take control of your life – get started on the road to recovery
Defeating an addiction can be a terrifying prospect, because you may have come to rely upon it as a means of getting through your days regardless of the damage it has done; and because whilst in the throes of an addiction you need not contemplate that damage and its impact upon your future life prospects.
However regardless of how badly you feel those prospects have been affected, and how terrifying such contemplation may be, it is more terrifying to imagine a life spent entirely under the burden of your addiction, and the treatment facilities and networks now operational in the UK are able to help you face your future with optimism and courage. It is never too late to take back control of yourself and your life; let today be the first day of the rest of your life, and get started today on the road to recovery.
Get help today
As with any case of addiction, it is important to deal with problem gambling as early as possible to limit the damage it may do to you and those around you; moreover, the longer addiction progresses the greater the likelihood that you will come into contact with dangerous individuals and/or engage in criminal activity which could put you and others in physical jeopardy. If you are ready to ask for help, do not hesitate to do so: contact your GP, an addiction specialist, or a rehab organisation, and explain your situation. Every day counts, so do not waste another one.
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