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Compulsive Gambling

Unknown-1According to The National Gambling Impact Study Commission (NGISC)  “gambling addiction affects approximately 2 to 5 percent of Americans.” People who gamble continue to do so despite of financial hardship or legal consequences. The brain of a gambler who is addicted responds in the same way the alcoholic brain responds to a drink. In other words, the more you feed your addiction, the more it will grow. “Pathological gambling is recognized as a medical disorder by the American Psychiatric Association and has elements of addiction similar to alcohol and drug addiction. It describes a gambler who loses control over gambling behavior with damaging personal, social and financial effects. Very often, the pathological gambler suffers from legal problems. Because the gambler is losing control it is referred to by mental health practitioners as an impulse disorder. Pathological gambling is a progressive disease, meaning that the symptoms will get worse over time” ( Impulsivity is an aspect of a person’s personality. People who are impulsive are more prone to gambling because of their personality. The impulse to gamble cannot be controlled. Not all impulsive people will develop gambling problems.

Gambling can be considered a hidden illness because there are no physical signs like alcohol addiction or drug addiction. Gamblers usually deny their problems and hide their addiction.

Some of the symptoms are:

  • taking gambling risks
  • preoccupation with gambling
  • the need to hide gambling
  • stealing money to gamble
  • gambling as a way to escape problems
  • taking time away from family life in order to gamble
  • denying gambling tendencies

Gambling becomes worse over time. People may make efforts to stop gambling, but fail to do so. Gamblers continue to bet or play in order to win back the money they lost. This can become very destructive which leads to debt, bankruptcy, divorce, failed relationships. Some people may gamble as a way to escape or numb their feelings and find ways to continue their addiction by lying or stealing money. Unpleasant feelings such as depression, anxiety, fear, etc may make gambling worse. Going to a casino may seem like a fun way to socialize and de-stress, but there are other healthier ways to positively cope with unpleasant feelings.


Recovery from gambling addiction is possible. Treatment should be tailored to the individual because every person is different. The first step is to admit that you have a problem with gambling and that you actually want to change. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) helps to change your unhealthy thoughts and false beliefs. It also teaches gamblers to fight urges, deal with uncomfortable emotions, and solve financial problems caused by the addiction.

The following below is taken from As you receive CBT to change unhealthy thoughts and behaviors, try using these alternative behaviors to substitute for gambling:

Reason for Gambling: To provide excitement, get a rush of adrenaline

Sample Substitute Behaviors:  Sport or a challenging hobby, such as mountain biking, rock climbing, or Go Kart racing

Reason for Gambling: To be more social, overcome shyness or isolation

Sample Substitute Behaviors:  Counseling, enroll in a public speaking class, join a social group, connect with family and friends, volunteer, find new friends

Reason for Gambling: To numb unpleasant feelings, not think about problems

Sample Substitute Behaviors: Therapy, consult Helpguide’s Bring Your Life into Balance toolkit

Reason for Gambling: Boredom or loneliness

Sample Substitute Behaviors: Find something you’re passionate about such as art, music, sports, or books then find others with the same interests

Reason for Gambling: To relax after a stressful day

Sample Substitute Behaviors: As little as 15 minutes of daily exercise can relieve stress. Or deep breathing, meditation, or massage

Reason for Gambling: To solve money problems

Sample Substitute Behaviors: The odds are always stacked against you so it’s far better to seek help with debts from a credit counselor


Getting treatment at the earliest sign of a gambling problem is the first step to preventing the addiction from getting worse. Whether it is individual therapy, group therapy or joining gamblers anonymous is the first step to recovery. In order to receive the best treatment, make sure that the person you work with has expertise in gambling.



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Compulsive Gambling

Helen Nieves

Helen Nieves is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Attention Deficit Consultant Specialist. She teaches ADHD on line and is on the Advisory Board at The American Institute of Health Care Professionals. She also received advanced training in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and in Grief Counseling.

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APA Reference
Nieves, H. (2015). Compulsive Gambling. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Apr 2015
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