When Gambling Becomes a Problem

gamblingAs state governments debate the benefit of additional casino gambling and summer weather brings the festive Saratoga race course season, the significance of problem gambling lingers on the sidelines.

In earlier times, gambling was seen as a moral problem, along with drinking of alcohol and other “vices”.  Gambling, and even the possession of cards and dice, was outlawed in the Puritan-led Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Canada declared a national ban on gambling over 100 years ago.  Yet, gambling is an ancient and worldwide phenomenon. Evidence of gambling can be found in the historical records of China, Rome, and even Native American cultures, going back as far as 6000 BC.

For a variety of reasons, gambling today is promoted as a leisure activity, associated with relaxation and pleasure. What is now known as the “gaming” industry promotes gambling as just one activity among many other entertaining possibilities that can be pursued at hundreds of casinos spread across the U.S. and Canada.  As well, gambling on cell phones and over the internet, legally or illegally, has added further dimension to a booming industry.

In 2015 the Gross Gaming Revenue (GGR) exceeded 73.3 Billion dollars. Where that money goes is one issue. But where that money comes from reflects the concerns and finances of many who characterize themselves or loved ones as “problem gamblers”.

What family members may call a gambling problem can be seen scientifically as a gambling addiction. Much in the same way alcohol does for some, the activity of gambling stimulates brain reward centers.  Just as an alcoholic will keep on drinking long after it has caused severe problems in his or her life, the gambling addict will continue to gamble, by whatever means, regardless of the financial ruin it perpetrates.

In a 2001 study conducted at Harvard Medical School, researchers monitored the brain activity of subjects as they engaged in a wheel-of-fortune game. They focused on areas of the brain known to be involved in processing dopamine, a pleasure-inducing chemical released during drug and alcohol use.

Those areas lit up when test subjects gambled, not only when they won, but more significantly also when they merely expected to win. This is precisely the pattern of anticipation and reward that drug and alcohol brain research has shown.

But gambling addiction has some unique features. It is a disorder that relates in large measure to belief systems and cognitive distortions, which are associated with the random schedule of reinforcement. Winning, for many gamblers, reinforces not only the notion of reward; but, for some, of being in control. They convince themselves that they have figured out a “system,” or that their luck has finally changed.  And only in gambling is it possible to encounter relapse as a winning and positive experience.

While there are many stereotypes and similarities, there is no “typical” problem gambler.  They are old, young, male, female, and represent all races and ethnicities.  They are rich, poor, successful or not, single and married.  They are, literally, everyone.

However, researchers have been able to classify people with gambling problems into three broad categories:

1.    The so-called “Normal”

People in this group, were essentially healthy before their problems began. They are described as falling victim to circumstances such as easy access to gambling, poor judgment and misunderstanding of the odds. Such symptoms as preoccupation, anxiety or depression are the result of their gambling but did not cause it. These people may be high-functioning and resourceful. They tend to respond quickly to treatment, and are more likely to successfully reduce (rather than stop) their gambling, if they choose.

2.    The Emotionally Vulnerable

People in this group are predisposed to a gambling problem due to existing addiction or mental health problems, including trauma, anxiety and depression. They gamble to escape from negative moods. They are also affected by the same triggers as those in the “normal” group. Given their vulnerability, abstinence is generally the most realistic goal for people in this group;

3.    Those with Biologically-Based Impulsivity

These are people with a biologically-based tendency towards impulsive behavior. For instance, ADHD is a common precursor to problem gambling; research suggests that as many as 20% of those with gambling problems have ADHD and concurrent problems such as substance use, poor school or work performance, emotional liability, chronic boredom and inadequate social skills. Gambling provides exciting stimulation and an apparent chance to excel. These people are generally poor candidates for the goal of simply reducing their gambling.

The following identifiers from Helpguide.org, Gambling Addiction  and Problem Gambling can help sort out concerns about gambling habits that may be problematic

Do I have a gambling problem?

You may have a gambling problem if you:

  • Feel the need to be secretive about your gambling. You might gamble in secret or lie about how much you gamble, feeling others won’t understand or that you will surprise them with a big win.
  • Have trouble controlling your gambling. Once you start gambling, can you walk away? Or are you compelled to gamble until you’ve spent your last dollar, upping your bets in a bid to win lost money back?
  • Gamble even when you don’t have the money. A red flag is when you are getting more and more desperate to recoup your losses. You may gamble until you’ve spent your last dollar, and then move on to money you don’t have- money to pay bills, credit cards, or things for your children. You may feel pushed to borrow, sell, or even steal things for gambling money. It’s a vicious cycle. You may sincerely believe that gambling more money is the only way to win lost money back. But it only puts you further and further in the hole.
  • Family and friends are worried about you. Denial keeps problem gambling going. If friends and family are worried, listen to them carefully. Take a hard look at how gambling is affecting your life. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help. Many older gamblers are reluctant to reach out to their adult children if they’ve gambled away their inheritance. But it’s never too late to make changes for the better.

If you are concerned that you may have a gambling problem or are concerned about a loved one, we urge you to contact Capital EAP right away. Our counselors can help sort it out and get help quickly.

In addition, the Center for Problem Gambling, here at Capital Counseling, is one of the most successful and highly recognized programs of its type in the United States, and has helped many people face and recover from their gambling addiction.