Here’s how you can tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy gambling behaviors and how to get help.

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Do you like to gamble but are asking yourself if you have a gambling disorder? Or are you wondering how to tell if someone you care about has a gambling problem?

For some, gambling can be a fun activity. But having a compulsion to gamble may mean you have a gambling disorder.

Understanding the difference between recreational gambling and gambling addiction can help you figure out if you or a loved one is living with a gambling disorder. Learning about the signs can help you know when to seek professional help.

What is gambling disorder?

Gambling disorder is currently listed as a behavioral addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR).

Experts once believed gambling disorder was an impulse-control disorder. The DSM-5-TR now classifies it as a non-substance-related disorder.

Gambling disorder is also commonly referred to as:

  • gambling addiction
  • problematic gambling
  • pathological gambling
  • compulsive gambling
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Recovering from gambling disorder is possible. It starts with understanding the signs and symptoms.

According to the DSM-5-TR, to receive a diagnosis of gambling disorder, a person needs to meet four (or more) of the following criteria for at least 12 months:

  • needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money to achieve a thrill
  • feeling restless or irritable when trying to cut back on or stop gambling
  • repeated unsuccessful attempts to manage or stop gambling behaviors
  • frequent thoughts of past, present, or future gambling experiences
  • gambling when feeling guilty, depressed, anxious, or helpless
  • chasing losses by gambling more
  • lying to hide how much they gamble
  • risking or losing a significant relationship, job, or other opportunities
  • depending on others for money to help with financial problems caused by gambling

Gambling disorder can be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on how many symptoms a person has.

According to a 2020 study in Sweden, past research suggests a strong link between problem gambling and other mental health conditions, including:

Rory Reid, an assistant professor of psychiatry and research at UCLA and a certified gambling counselor in Las Vegas, says that other signs of gambling disorder may include:

  • gambling more money or spending more time gambling
  • gambling more than you can afford to lose
  • taking out credit or loans to gamble

“A gambling disorder primarily consists of multiple unsuccessful attempts to reduce or stop a pattern of problem gambling that’s causing significant consequences in a person’s life,” Reid says.

He notes that these consequences can negatively affect a person’s work, relationships, or psychological well-being. And problem gamblers often feel ashamed about their habits, even as they continue to gamble.

Shame may cause people with a gambling disorder to lie about or hide their gambling activities from close friends and family, making it difficult to spot problem gambling behavior at first.

If you’re wondering how to tell if you have a gambling problem, learning the difference between recreational and compulsive gambling can help.

Recreational or social gambling typically occurs with friends or co-workers. This type of gambling lasts for a limited period of time, and the losses are predetermined and reasonable. This means you understand you’ll likely lose money, and you’re comfortable with the amount lost.

In professional gambling, the risks are limited, and behavior is controlled.

Problem gambling is typically marked by:

  • constant thoughts about gambling
  • only thinking about gambling
  • continually gambling despite the consequences
  • failed attempts to stop or cut down gambling behaviors

Problem gamblers are often:

  • in denial
  • superstitious about their gambling
  • overconfident about their gambling abilities
  • of the belief that money is the cause of and solution to all of their problems
  • highly competitive, energetic, restless, and easily bored
  • generous to the point of mania or extravagance
  • people who overwork themselves or who wait until the last moment before working hard

Sex addiction isn’t about sex. Substance [misuse] isn’t about drugs and alcohol. Eating disorders aren’t about food. Gambling addiction isn’t about money,” Reid says.

“People turn to these activities as they provide a mood-altering experience from emotional discomfort, stress, or other life challenges,” he adds.

Although you may feel hopeless right now, it’s important to know that recovery from gambling addiction is possible.

“Treatment helps people learn more effective ways to cope and divorce themselves from the dysfunctional relationship they have with their addiction,” Reid says.

Although you can try to support a person’s recovery, Reid says it’s ultimately up to the gambler to decide to stop gambling.

“Allowing them to [endure] consequences for their choices can sometimes be one of the most meaningful ways of showing love, although it’s hard to watch,” he says.

If you’re interested in learning more about treatment options for gambling disorder, consider reading this article on gambling disorder treatment.

You might also find it helpful to speak with a therapist, problem gambling counselor, or doctor specializing in addiction recovery.

Whatever avenue you choose, it’s important to know that it’s possible to manage your gambling disorder symptoms and enjoy life to the fullest.