When you hear “problem gambler” or “gambling addict,” what comes to mind? Maybe it’s someone who lives in a place like Vegas or Atlantic City, where gambling is legal. Or a person who spends all of his or her time at a casino or racetrack. According to this stereotype, a gambling addict is easy to spot.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
Problem gambling — which can also be known as a gambling addiction — happens when playing games of chance causes problems in a person’s life, impeding a person’s work, family and finances. Although symptoms and severity might vary, this might mean things like obsessing about gambling, “chasing” losses (trying to recoup losses, often with borrowed money) and being unable to stop gambling, even after multiple attempts. In serious cases, similar to other addictions, problem gamblers may become depressed and anxious, lose friends and family and incur significant debt.
Most people are able to enjoy gambling without harm, but about 2 million people in the United States are considered problem gamblers with different levels of severity. There are still a lot of misconceptions about what that means. Here are some common myths about problem gambling, and what the latest research says about them.
- Gambling isn’t a substance, so it can’t be a real addiction. Researchers are still learning more about how the brain functions, particularly as it relates to addiction. But addiction is no longer seen as requiring something physical, like a street drug. Problem gambling initially creates intense feelings of pleasure, but after it fades, much like with drugs or alcohol, the problem gambler will seek it out again and again.
The problem gambler will also increase his or her “tolerance level” and seek bigger thrills. This often leads to the type of escalation that has a huge financial and emotional impact, as well as feelings of shame and regret once the high goes away. Dr. Danesh Alam, a behavioral medical director at Optum who conducts research in addiction medicine, also notes that “the withdrawal from problem gambling is similar to what you can see in chemical dependency — irritability, anxiety and restlessness.”
- People who are problem gamblers will gamble on anything. The reality is more complicated. “People with gambling problems gamble in lots of ways, but they tend to prefer one form that becomes the most problematic for them,” noted Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council of Problem Gambling. “One of the biggest predictors of a gambling problem is multiple forms of gambling. The more forms you gamble on, the more likely to have a problem.”
- If you can afford financially to have a gambling addiction, then it shouldn’t be a problem. Problem gambling isn’t just about money. It also affects one’s emotional stability, feelings of self-worth and relationships. As escalation continues, it can become harder to hide, which increases the emotional distress, as well as health effects such as lack of sleep and poor nutrition.
- It’s easy to spot a gambling addict. Problem gambling is sometimes called the “hidden addiction” as it can be misunderstood and hard to detect — even by some health professionals — and doesn’t have initial physical consequences. “There are few, if any, outward physical signs of gambling addiction, unlike with substance abuse, where you might have slurred speech, track marks and so on,” Whyte said. Problem gamblers can come from all walks of life — young and old, men and women, and from every background.
- There’s no help for you if you’re a problem gambler. Problem gambling is an addiction, not a moral failing. It can be treated successfully after it’s detected, and many people have found treatment that works. This usually takes the form of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which may help change unhealthy behaviors by understanding how thoughts and beliefs affect one’s actions. It also might involve the use of drugs such as naltrexone, which may reduce cravings and address other conditions that a problem gambler might have, such as alcoholism. Peer support with groups such as Gamblers Anonymous can also be crucial for problem gamblers.
March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month. If you think you might have a gambling addiction — or someone you know does — know that you’re not alone. Call or text to (800) 522-4700, or visit www.ncpgambling.org/chat, for confidential help. It’s free and open to anyone. Or talk to your doctor or behavioral health specialist. They will be able to get you the resources you need so you can develop a treatment plan.