Problem Gambling and Gambling Addiction

Posted by Frank Gillespie MA

Facts about problem gambling

Problem gambling is defined as, “Persistent and recurrent problematic gambling behaviour, leading to clinically significant impairment or distress”. Problem gambling affects between 1 and 3 % of the population. Adolescent prevalence of problem gambling is higher and can be between 5 and 7%. A problem gambler affects 11 other people in their lives whether it is through their work, family or community. The problem gambler is also likely to suffer from other addictions, medical problems, and affective disorders such as anxiety and depression. Certain groups are likely to develop a gambling problem and these can be the elderly, certain ethnic groups (e.g. indigenous populations), military, and college populations. Dealing with a gambling addiction one needs support and strategies to overcome the urge to gamble.

Problem Gambling Cycle

There are three phases of the problem gambling cycle.

The first phase is the winning phase in which you are winning and losing, but you are winning a lot. You may feel like you have special powers. The big trigger for most is the “Big Win” which is winning a lot of money. This further validates your omnipotent powers. Gambling stories are shared, but it’s usual of winning, not losing. Family members don’t complain when you take them on nice holidays or buy that boat you always wanted. This can linger for a few years.

The second phase is the losing phase. The frequency of gambling increasing. The amount may increase with the hope of winning back your loses. One of the biggest clues to deal with a gambling addiction is when you ‘chase your losses’. The chase is a big clue that gambling may have turned into a problem. The chasing is also a way to regain the power you thought you once had. The cycle of the gambling becoming a problem starts as a recreational gambler where you can control how much you bet. You may try to quit at this stage. Depression and anxiety sets in on different levels and suicidal ideations may be present.

The last phase is the desperate stage in which the pressure to pay off debts increases. The gambler may start selling belongings, bouncing cheques, or illegal activities. Depression and anxiety worsen.

Symptoms of Problem Gambling

The symptoms of problem gambling are to increase wagers for the same type of excitement, yet some increase their bets to try to chase their losses; feeling agitated or restless when attempting to cut down or stop gambling; feeling agitated or restless when others complain about your gambling; tried to stop or cut down on gambling, but it was not possible; cognitive and behavioural salience about gambling (thinking about next bet, reading about the races, etc.); gambling when in a low mood; chasing the losses; has created negative experiences with work, family or community due to gambling; and depends on others to ‘bail’ the gambler out.

Treating gambling addiction

A lot of successful treatment for gambling problems is the Cognitive Behavioural Approach.

The cognitive is to challenge the thinking of the gambler, ‘I need to make one more bet to break even. This bet feels lucky.’ or ‘I am lonely and the slot machines keep me company.’ The behavioural component is to explore the internal and external triggers. These triggers perpetuate the gambling cycle. There are internal triggers and external triggers. Internal triggers which AA would call HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, and tired) as well as feeling low or anxious. Unresolved trauma and grief is dampened or ‘put under the rug’ with gambling. Slot machines are known to put someone in a trance-like state where the internal pain is alleviated temporarily with gaming. Some refer to these electronic devices as their electronic friend. Dog and horse betting attracts the ones who think they have a system to win only to find out at some point that the system is eating away at your bank account.

External triggers can be gambling venues, pubs with gambling, the structure characteristics of slot machines which are the lights and sounds that create a feeling of excitement and a ‘near win’ feel (also referred to as electronic gaming machines, fruit machines, and pokies). Scratch cards are the ‘crack cocaine’ of gambling. Most people will get two matches which are coined ‘heart stoppers’ because you are closer to winning rather than losing. This encourages the player to play again. This form of gambling, like slot machines, are continuous forms of gambling that are the most addictive. They operate on intermittent schedule which means you never know when you will win, but when you do this reinforces the need to continue to play. Therefore, triggers and knowledge about gambling is one part of the process of recovery. The other part is the deal with financial recovery with how to manage money, destroy credit cards, and have others handle your money until you feel under control.

Frank Gillespie MA

Frank Gillespie has a Master's Degree in Counseling from LaSalle University in Philadelphia. He is a nationally Certified Counselor (NCC). He has provided therapy for over 23 years. During his career, he has helped more than 10,000 people move past their obstacles towards reaching their potential and fulfillment in their lives. He practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with a warm and nurturing approach. In addition to being a therapist, Frank has been an adjunct college professor teaching social work, a clinical consultant, a clinical director, and a seminar speaker. Frank has recently retired from his full time practice to focus on a part time online practice. He is married. He enjoys listening to music, watching sports, power walking, swimming, reading and writing.


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