Compulsive gambling is the uncontrollable urge to keep gambling despite the toll it takes on your life. If you're prone to compulsive gambling, you may continually chase bets, lie or hide your behavior, and 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:
Compulsive gambling typically begins in the late teen years. 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. Eventually, a person with a gambling problem becomes almost completely preoccupied with gambling and getting money to gamble.
For most compulsive gamblers, betting isn't as much about money as it is about the excitement. Sustaining the thrill 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, compulsive gamblers are compelled to keep playing to recoup their money — a pattern that becomes increasingly destructive over time.
When to see a doctor or mental health provider
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.
Compulsive gambling affects both men and women and cuts across cultural and socio-economic lines. Although most people who play cards or wager never develop a gambling problem, certain factors are more often associated with compulsive gamblers:
Compulsive gambling can have profound and long-lasting consequences for your life, including:
Preparing for your appointment
If you've made the choice to seek help for your gambling, you've taken an important first step. Start by talking to your primary care doctor. If it seems that you have a serious problem, you'll likely be referred to a mental health provider for further evaluation and treatment. These suggestions can help you get the most from your appointments:
Tests and diagnosis
To be diagnosed with compulsive gambling, you must meet the symptom criteria spelled out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This manual is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is used by mental health providers to diagnose mental conditions and by insurance companies to reimburse for treatment.
DSM criteria for the diagnosis of compulsive gambling require that at least five of the following signs and symptoms must be present:
Because excessive gambling can sometimes be a sign of bipolar disorder, mental health providers are careful to rule out this disorder before making a diagnosis.
Treatments and drugs
Treating compulsive gambling can be challenging. That's partly because most people have a hard time admitting they have a problem. Yet a major component of treatment is working on acknowledging that you're a compulsive gambler. If your family or your employer pressured you into therapy, you may find yourself resisting treatment. But treating a gambling problem can help you regain a sense of control — and perhaps even help heal damaged relationships or finances.
Treatment for compulsive gambling involves three main approaches:
Even with treatment, you may return to gambling, especially if you spend time with people who gamble or in gambling environments. If you feel that you'll start gambling again, contact your care provider or sponsor right away to head off a full-blown relapse.
Coping and support
The appeal of gambling is hard to overcome if you keep thinking that you'll win the next time you gamble. Here are some recovery skills that 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.
There's no proven way to prevent a gambling problem from occurring or recurring. But if you have risk factors for compulsive gambling, avoiding gambling in any form, people who gamble and places where gambling occurs may help. Getting treatment at the earliest sign of a problem may help prevent a gambling disorder from becoming worse.
Last Updated: 2011-01-19
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