A gambling addiction is an irrational compulsion to gamble despite negative consequences. What that means is that a compulsive gambler will continue to gamble in the face of financial ruin, marital breakdown, and loss of job, family and friends. Most of us think of a compulsive gambler as someone who spends most of their time and money at a casino or the horse track. Certainly you will find a large number of compulsive gamblers in both of these places. Their addiction seems obvious, at least to outsiders. But compulsive gambling can also be more subtle and may only involve relatively small amounts of money. For example, someone who buys weekly lottery tickets or plays a "friendly" game of monthly poker where the biggest bet doesn’t exceed five dollars might also be a compulsive gambler. 

The why of gambling

It is not how much money a person gambles away that matters, but why they gamble. The "why" of a gambling addiction is similar to the "why" of any addiction. Compulsive gambling becomes a way to avoid dealing with reality: the reality of a painful past, the reality of poor choices and their consequences or the reality of a strained relationship. Compulsive gambling offers a tremendous psychological high that distracts them from dealing with reality. This high, although not chemically induced as with drugs and alcohol, releases large doses of pleasure-producing chemicals in the brain and it is this "feeling" of pleasure and intense excitement that gamblers become addicted to. Whether someone is betting their house, their retirement savings, the kids’ education fund, the grocery money or spending twenty dollars on lottery tickets, the intense feeling of intoxicating pleasure is similar.  

Most people certainly don’t start out gambling with a plan to gamble away everything they own and lose everyone they love. Compulsive gamblers usually start off small: card games, sports bets, slot machines at their favourite pub. But eventually betting more, and therefore risking more, becomes necessary to attain the same intense psychological high. Over time, compulsive gambling begins to create its own set of problems – problems that the compulsive gambler seeks to avoid through more gambling. Understandably, this creates a vicious cycle causing problems to grow exponentially.

The rational of irrational thinking

Along with the addictive physical response produced by gambling, the mental fantasy is just as gripping and obsessive. Fantasies like "The next one is the big one," "Once I win the jackpot, I’ll pay all my debts and then quit," "Odds are that I’ve got to win soon," and "I’ll continue just until I recover all the money I’ve lost" are just some of the mental gymnastics that gamblers perform to justify their gambling. And this type of irrational thinking feeds their addiction. To a non-gambler, this sort of thinking seems crazy, but to a compulsive gambler it seems quite reasonable and rational.  

Some characteristics common to many gamblers include denial, blame, lying about where money is being spent, extended periods of time away from home without good reason, sudden disposal of material possessions, complete control over household finances, secrecy about household finances, mood swings, unexplained anger, frustration over attempts to budget, and blaming their spouse for budget shortfalls or poor spending habits.

Recovery from compulsive gambling is possible. We cannot deal with something we don’t acknowledge, so the first step for the gambler is to admit that they are compulsive gamblers. The second step is to attend meetings of Gamblers Anonymous for the gambler and Gam-Anon for the spouse. Both are 12-step recovery programs that deal with recovering from gambling addiction and its effects.

© 2010 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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