Compulsive gambling, also called gambling disorder, is the uncontrollable urge to keep gambling despite the toll it takes on your life. Gambling means that you're willing to risk something you value in the hope of getting something of even greater value.
Gambling can stimulate the brain's reward system much like drugs such as alcohol can, leading to addiction. If you're prone to compulsive gambling, you may continually chase bets, hide your behavior, deplete savings, accumulate debt, or even resort to theft or fraud to support your addiction.
Compulsive gambling is a serious condition that can destroy lives. Although treating compulsive gambling can be challenging, many compulsive gamblers have found help through professional treatment.
Signs and symptoms of compulsive (pathologic) gambling include:
On rare occasions, gambling becomes a problem with the very first wager. But more often, a gambling problem progresses over time. In fact, many people spend years enjoying social gambling without any problems. But more frequent gambling or life stresses can turn casual gambling into something much more serious.
During periods of stress or depression, the urge to gamble may be especially overpowering, serving as an unhealthy escape. Eventually, a person with a gambling problem becomes almost completely preoccupied with gambling and getting money to gamble.
For many compulsive gamblers, betting isn't as much about money as it is about the excitement. Sustaining the thrill that gambling provides usually involves taking increasingly bigger risks and placing larger bets. Those bets may involve sums you can't afford to lose.
Unlike most casual gamblers who stop when losing or set a loss limit, compulsive gamblers are compelled to keep playing to recover their money — a pattern that becomes increasingly destructive over time.
Some compulsive gamblers may have remission where they gamble less or not at all for a period of time. However, without treatment, the remission usually isn't permanent.
Have family members, friends or co-workers expressed concern about your gambling? If so, listen to their worries. Because denial is almost always a characteristic of compulsive or addictive behavior, it may be difficult for you to recognize that you have a problem.
Gambling is out of control if:
Exactly what causes someone to gamble compulsively isn't well understood. Like many problems, compulsive gambling may result from a combination of biological, genetic and environmental factors.
To be diagnosed with a gambling disorder, you must meet the symptom criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association. This manual is used by mental health providers to diagnose mental conditions and by insurance companies to reimburse for treatment.
DSM criteria for the diagnosis of gambling disorder require that a person have four or more of the following signs and symptoms present within one year:
Because excessive gambling can sometimes be a sign of bipolar disorder, mental health providers need to rule out this disorder before making a diagnosis.
Compulsive gambling can have profound and long-lasting consequences for your life, such as:
There's no proven way to prevent a gambling problem from occurring or recurring. If you have risk factors for compulsive gambling, it may be helpful to avoid gambling in any form, people who gamble and places where gambling occurs. Get treatment at the earliest sign of a problem to help prevent a gambling disorder from becoming worse.
The appeal of gambling is hard to overcome if you keep thinking that you'll win the next time you gamble. These recovery skills may help you remain focused on resisting the urges of compulsive gambling:
Family members of compulsive gamblers can get counseling, even if the gambler is unwilling to participate in therapy.
Compulsive gambling affects both men and women, and it cuts across cultural, social and economic lines. Although most people who play cards or wager never develop a gambling problem, certain factors are more often associated with compulsive gamblers: