Many people like a flutter now and again but gambling can become a serious problem in a short space of time. It can even lead to ruined relationships, mental health problems and severe financial worries.

What is a gambling addiction?

An addiction is characterised by a compulsion or urge to do something, despite being aware of the negative consequences of your actions and wanting to stop. It is possible to be addicted to many different things, from drugs and alcohol to food and gambling. People who have a gambling addiction have an urge to gamble, regardless if they know that it will make them feel upset or depressed, increase financial strain or cause problems with loved ones.

It is estimated that around 350,000 people in the UK have a gambling addiction, but most people do not seek help and many are unaware that they would be classed as a problem gambler.

How do I know if I have a gambling addiction?

Addiction is a strong word and it may be linked to psychological compulsion, so it is important that people feel able to ask for help if they have an addiction, rather than feeling embarrassed or ashamed about it. If you answer yes to the following questions, it may be possible that you have an addiction to gambling:

  • Do you prioritise gambling over other activities, such as spending time with your family and friends?
  • Have you taken time off work to gamble?
  • Do you have outstanding debts and continue to gamble?
  • Have you borrowed money to gamble?
  • Do you make excuses or lie about gambling to friends or relatives?
  • Are you worried when the phone rings or there is a knock at the door because of gambling debts?
  • Are people close to you worried about your gambling?
  • Are you spending more time gambling than you used to? 

Pathological gambling

In extreme cases, problem gambling may be described as pathological gambling, which is similar to conditions such as kleptomania. The American Psychiatric Association defines pathological gambling as an impulse control disorder. Someone with a pathological gambling problem will experience a strong urge to gamble, even though they want to give up and they are aware that what they are doing is not right or healthy. There are certain criteria for pathological gambling and, if an individual fits five or more of the following criteria, it is likely that they will be classed as a pathological gambler;

  • Preoccupation: this involves constantly thinking about gambling.
  • Tolerance: an individual feels the urge to gamble more and take bigger risks to achieve the same high.
  • Withdrawal: this involves experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not partaking in gambling.
  • Escape: gambling is a form of escape and a way to lift the mood.
  • Chasing: this means betting constantly to make up for lost bets.
  • Lying: this may involve telling lies to loved ones about how much you gamble, where you are going or how much money you have lost.
  • Loss of control: this involves a lack of control to stop gambling.
  • Illegal acts: this involves breaking the law to pay for gambling or to pay off gabling debts.
  • Risked relationship: individuals continue to gamble despite an important relationship being at risk.
  • Bailout: this involves turning to others to help pay off debts incurred by gambling.
  • Biological bases: this involves a lack of norepinephrine.

Symptoms to look for if you are worried about a loved one

If you are worried that a loved one has a gambling problem, you should look out for the following signs:

  • They lie about where they are going.
  • Hiding bank statements.
  • Blaming others for their gambling habits.
  • Spending an increasing amount of time out of the house.
  • Becoming irritable and defensive when asked about gambling.

Causes of gambling addiction

There are many possible causes of gambling addiction, which include:

  • Getting addicted to the thrill and adrenaline rush produced by gambling.
  • Stress.
  • Relationship difficulties.
  • Bereavement.
  • Alcohol abuse (around half of those with gambling addiction also have alcohol addiction; the two addictions tend to fuel each other and lead to a vicious cycle).
  • Having an addictive personality.
  • Depression.

Treatment and help for people with gambling addiction

Many people are unable to admit they have a problem with gambling and what is a harmless hobby quickly becomes a serious problem. This is especially the case if you are dealing with difficulties, such as problems at work, relationship strain and financial worries. Often, the first step is to admit that you have a gambling problem, and once you have faced this fear, there is a great deal of support available and various treatment methods.

The most effective treatment methods include psychological therapies and group-based support sessions. Many people find it beneficial to spend time with people in a similar situation and try to give up gambling with the help of others. Therapies can help gamblers to find alternative ways of dealing with stressful situations and identify and address possible triggers. There are also steps you can take to try and stop gambling, including cancelling online accounts, giving loved ones your bank cards, avoiding routes that have betting shops and not spending time with people who like to gamble.

Help and support

Help and support is available from your GP and you can also contact Gamblers Anonymous, which hosts group sessions and provides information and advice for people with gambling addictions. Gamblers Anonymous also runs Gam-Anon, which also provides information and emotional support for relatives and those affected by another person’s addiction.


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