Gambling disorder can cause friction in your life, no matter what phase of addiction you’re in. Here’s how to end the compulsion.

Gambling can be a fun activity for a special occasion or even a hobby. But when it becomes something you feel like you must do, it may have crossed over into gambling addiction territory.

Pathological gambling is a problem whether you’re having a great time and winning or you’re down in the dumps because of a recent loss.

It can be difficult for people with gambling disorder to realize they have a problem — even when their compulsion creates financial and emotional strain, the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling points out.

Still, treatment is available and it’s possible to recover from compulsive gambling. Learning about the warning signs and four distinct stages of gambling disorder may help you identify whether you or a loved one is experiencing the addiction.

Previously, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition (DSM-4) categorized gambling disorder as a problem stemming from impulse control. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) now recognizes gambling as a behavioral addiction.

Though these diagnostic guidelines find potential behavioral addictions, such as gaming disorder or internet addiction disorder, require more research before becoming official diagnoses, gambling disorder is an accepted diagnosis.

According to the DSM-5, a person has a gambling disorder if they display recurring problematic behavior that causes distress or impairment. They must show at least four of the following behaviors within a year:

  • preoccupation with gambling
  • a need to gamble with more money each time
  • difficulty cutting back or stopping gambling
  • irritability when trying to cut back on gambling
  • regularly gambling when feeling depressed or anxious
  • chasing losses, or trying to regain lost money by continuing to gamble
  • lying to conceal gambling activities
  • committing illegal acts to finance compulsive gambling
  • loss of a relationship, job, or other opportunities
  • reliance on other people for money to pay back gambling debts

People with gambling addiction have difficulty controlling their gambling behavior, even when it’s adversely impacting their life.

Gambling disorder can affect adults and teens. Research estimates that 6% to 9% of young adults — a higher percentage than adults — have compulsive gambling habits. The study also determined that young men were significantly more at risk than young women.

Another study found that internet gambling is common for college students with problematic gambling behaviors.

You may be wondering how you can have an addiction to something other than a physical substance.

While there’s still research to be done in this area, recent evidence suggests that the act of gambling may produce specific neurological effects that promote dopamine desensitization and an addictive state.

One review, for example, explains that the uncertain and intermittent nature of gambling rewards makes it so that your brain is getting a perpetual release of dopamine while gambling.

Because this cycling dopamine release can cause you to become desensitized, you may gamble with more money to increase the risk and possible reward.

Research from 2015 also suggests dysregulated serotonin levelsmay play a role in behavioral addictions like gambling disorders. Some people may be predisposed to pathological gambling or other similar behavioral addictions because their serotonin levels give them less control over impulses and decision making.

The Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery has identified the following four phases in gambling addiction.

1. Winning phase

The winning phase often starts with a big win, leading to excitement and a positive view of gambling. Problem gamblers believe that they have a special talent for gambling and that the winning will continue. They begin spending greater amounts of time and money on gambling.

2. Losing phase

Problem gamblers become more and more preoccupied with gambling. They start to gamble alone, borrow money, skip work, lie to family and friends, and default on debts. They also begin to chase their losses.

3. Desperation phase

Problem gamblers lose all control over their gambling. They feel ashamed and guilty after gambling, but they can’t stop. They may cheat or steal to finance their addiction. The consequences of compulsive gambling catch up with them. They may lose their jobs, get divorced, or get arrested.

4. Hopeless phase

In the hopeless phase, problem gamblers hit rock bottom. They don’t believe that anyone cares or that help is possible. They don’t even care if they live or die. They may abuse drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. Many problem gamblers also consider or attempt suicide.

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz suggests there are four core steps in recovering from gambling addiction in his book “Brain Lock: Free Yourself From Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior.” This is one of the various psychotherapeutic methods used to help treat pathological gambling.

Step 1: Relabel

Recognize that the urge to gamble is nothing more than a symptom of gambling addiction, which is a treatable medical condition. It is not a valid feeling that deserves attention.

Step 2: Reattribute

Stop blaming and try to understand that the urge to gamble has a physical cause in your brain. You are separate from the disease of addiction, but not a passive bystander. With practice, learn to control.

Step 3: Refocus

When the urge to gamble strikes, shift attention to something more positive or constructive. Do something else, even if the compulsion to gamble is still bothersome.

Step 4: Revalue

Over time learn to revalue flawed thoughts about gambling. Instead of taking them at face value, realize that they have no inherent value or power. They’re just toxic waste from the brain.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and rational emotive therapy are other common treatment approaches for gambling addiction.

Knowing the four phases of gambling addiction may make it easier to identify the disorder in yourself or a loved one.

When you live with a gambling disorder, it can feel impossible to control the desire to gamble. This compulsion can strain your relationships and other areas of your life.

Consider getting support from a mental health professional. They can help you cope with your pathological gambling problem and any related distress.

You can overcome this chapter in your life and you don’t have to do it alone.

Gambling disorder resources

Was this helpful?