Compulsive gambling is a form of addiction defined by an urge to bet more frequently, even when it is clearly time to count one’s losses and pack it in. Compulsive gamblers will pursue losses and will show irritability when they attempt to stop gambling. An addiction is a habitual attraction to a substance or action that causes long term destruction through overdependence. Gambling is a pretty old pastime, and even ancient cultures were known to engage in it. Compulsive gamblers existed then too, but not to the extent of the large numbers that we are seeing today.
Addiction to a substance or action is characterized with the loss of ability control oneself, a preoccupation with the habit (to the point of dependency), dishonesty, guilt, and frequent relapse. Although gambling will not bring the physical side effects of addictions to drugs and alcohol, a complete obsession with it is just as bad. Compulsive gambling ruins lives, affecting the person’s social, physiological, and vocational well-being.
Since gambling usually follows a process or procedure, compulsive gambling is classified as a process addiction. The continued engagement of such addiction leads to behavior that is typical with other addictions (tolerance, euphoria and withdrawal).
Signs of gambling addiction
- Preoccupation with the habit. A compulsive gambler cannot concentrate on anything other than the need to go out and gamble. Their life will revolve around it, and it gradually will consume their thoughts.
- Tuning out other areas of their lives. Following the first point, the compulsive gambler will be so focused on placing the next bet, or getting the next lottery draw numbers, that they will forget other important aspects of their lives. Their work lives suffer as well as their relationships with family, friends, and spouses.
- Continued gambling even after suffering terrible consequences. Many times, gamblers will lose their jobs and family, and may even be kicked out of the home. Even when this happens, a compulsive gambler will still head on back to the casino to try their luck.
- Failed attempts to quit. In some cases, compulsive gamblers will realize the errors of their ways, and try to quit, fruitlessly. At this point, their lives are so dependent on gambling, they can’t live without the excitement and uncertainty that comes with it. They may appear to be on the straight path for a short period of time, maybe after an intervention by concerned family and friends. Very quickly, however, they will give in to the addiction again and try to get another fix.
There are certain traits that are synonymous to compulsive gamblers, and these include:
a) Distorted thinking. This means that they usually have a flawed way of thinking, expressed as denial of the habit, an inflated sense of confidence, and in some cases, an overwhelming need to be in control.
b) Compulsive gamblers often tend to believe that money causes all their problems, and is the solution to these problems as well. They are often blind to the fact that their own decisions and actions are the root cause of the disastrous consequences, not the money itself.
c) Compulsive gamblers are highly competitive, restless, have boundless energy, and show boredom quite easily. The competitive aspect makes them feel smart, powerful and in control. Boredom sets in quickly if the activity they are doing isn’t replicating the same high they get from gambling.
d) Compulsive gamblers tend to be generous, sometimes to the point of extravagance, and are many times workaholics. They will work for long hours on end, and then immerse themselves in the world of gambling for a comparable period of time. Their world revolves around this: making more money to gamble even more.
When compulsive gamblers narrate their experiences, their stories, thought process, and feelings are very similar to those described by drug addicts. Compulsive gamblers will often talk about wanting to feel in action at all times, trying to stay in the euphoric state associated with gambling. They also talk about the rush they feel before they go into action, a similar feeling to what drug addicts experience. A study involving cocaine abusers found that these same feelings are very similar to those described by cocaine addicts.
Phases of compulsive gambling
Since we’ve established that gambling is very similar to drug and alcohol addiction, let’s get into the phases of pathological gambling. It is commonly divided into 4 stages: winning, losing, desperation, and helplessness.
This is quite similar to the learning phase experienced by drug addicts. At this stage, the high is very rewarding, and the consequences minimal. As the addiction progresses, the gambler narrows down their interests, and becomes more preoccupied with gambling and making money to gamble.
Male gamblers are more inclined to seek high action than their female counterparts, who mainly gamble as an escape mechanism. The winning phase gambler is uncharacteristically confident, will often brag, and increases their betting amount with each turn. This phase can take months or years in some cases.
This is the phase where the gambling becomes a full-on addiction. The compulsive gambler will encounter a losing streak of unimaginable proportions, which often means much less money. The gambler resorts to borrowing money to get bailed out, and will lie to cover up the behavior. It is at this point that work and family are affected, and the gambler in this phase can’t stop themselves.
The compulsive gambler will turn desperate in order to sustain their habit. They will engage in illegal acts to get money (embezzle funds, write bad checks), and will use bailout money to fund their next bets. At this point, their reputation as a compulsive gambler is revealed to all, and will result in alienation from friends and family. The desperation phase is also the most common phase where the gambler will seek help, having hit ‘rock bottom.’
This is the most dangerous phase, where if compulsive gamblers don’t get the help they need, many turn to suicide. The addict will suffer major depression and emotional distress as they lose the people they care about and get more and more in debt. It is also at this time that the gambler will be most likely to fall into another addiction, like substance abuse.
Compulsive gambling can be treated, and in many cases will require professional help to rehabilitate those who suffer from it. Help centers and therapy clinics are the most common ways to find treatment. However, if identified early, preventative measure can be taken to avoid going down the path of destruction.