Gambling is a risky activity that involves betting something of value, usually money, on an uncertain outcome. It’s often seen as a form of entertainment and can be fun for many people, but some struggle with compulsive gambling, which is a serious mental health problem.
The idea that you can get hooked on a behavior like gambling the way you can get hooked on drugs was controversial a decade ago, but now scientists agree that it’s a real addiction for some people. Some people are also at increased risk for gambling problems because of other mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety. It’s important to recognize the signs of a gambling problem and seek help as soon as possible.
While some people gamble for the excitement of winning big, others are motivated by a desire to change their moods, socialize with friends or take their minds off of stress and financial concerns. In addition, the brain’s reward system triggers feelings of euphoria when playing certain games, which can be addictive.
Problematic gambling causes people to lose control over their spending and their lives, even when they are not in financial distress. It can affect relationships, job performance and their overall quality of life. It’s also a leading cause of suicide, so it’s important to seek treatment if you think you have a gambling problem.
Although the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved any medications to treat gambling disorder, there are several psychotherapies that can be effective. Cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, helps people challenge irrational beliefs and behaviors that make them more vulnerable to gambling. It can also teach people to avoid situations that can trigger gambling.
There are no specific tests to diagnose gambling disorder, but experts use a combination of clinical and behavioral criteria to identify it. They look for the following:
Some researchers believe that gambling disorder is more similar to substance abuse than to other impulse control disorders, such as kleptomania and trichotillomania (hair pulling). The American Psychiatric Association has emphasized the similarities between pathological gambling and alcoholism in its editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
You can prevent gambling from becoming a problem by setting money and time limits before you start. Only gamble with money you can afford to lose, and never use money that you need for other things. It’s also important to learn how to handle stress in a healthy way and find other ways to entertain yourself. And don’t chase your losses—that will only lead to bigger and bigger losses. If you are worried about your gambling habits, talk to a mental health professional or call StepChange for free debt advice.