Gambling Addiction FAQs

How can gambling be addictive?

“Disordered gambling” is the official term, now under the categories of Substance Use and Other Disorders in the ICD-11 and Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders  in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, DSM-5.  It was previously categorized as a mental disorder having to do with impulse-control or compulsive behavior.

The early assessment tools for pathological gambling used lifetime measures, with no requirement that diagnostic criteria were met within a specified time-frame up until very recently. Now, recognition is growing that, like much addictive behavior, gambling problems are often episodic or temporary—although they may reappear.

The American Psychiatric Association’s gambling addiction category in DSM-5  takes this into account. DSM-5 distinguishes between episodic and continuous compulsive gambling, as well as recognizing a gambling disorder to be in either early or sustained remission (recovery). Finally, like the drug use disorders in this section, gambling disorders are categorized as mild, moderate or severe.

We thus observe in DSM-5 and other modern clinical thinking that gambling behavior follows the same patterns, including problematic and addictive behavior. The World Health Organization (WHO) classification, for instance, has shifted it from a compulsive disorder, “pathological gambling,” to an addictive disorder, along with gaming.

Am I addicted to gambling?

There are a number of criteria for what constitutes a gambling problem, according to the DSM-5 and ICD-11 (WHO) criteria. The definition of addiction LPP finds useful is: when we create an experience where use of a behavior or substance becomes compulsive, and we continue to pursue it in spite of harm to self or others, then that behavior has become addictive. This is how we ask people to identify any addictive behavior including those involving substance use.

If gambling is causing harm to you or your family, work, etc., then it falls on the addiction spectrum. However you conceptualize such problem gambling, it is always important to simultaneously examine the life issues, problems, and gaps in your life to which addictions are responses.

Do I have to completely quit all betting — If I’m addicted to poker at the casino, what about playing the lottery or betting on sports?

There is no simple, agreed-upon answer to this question — i.e., it depends on you, your gambling experience, and your life. However, modern harm reduction theory accepts that addiction, whether to substances or other activities, is not a single entity that applies across the board. This goes along with the recognition that addictive gambling and other addictions ebb and flow and vary with a person’s life circumstances.

This is true as well for compulsive or addictive gambling. There may be long periods where gambling isn’t a problem at all for the person. And potential trigger activities (say buying a lottery ticket) are also not cast in cement. That is, the person who has been addicted to gambling may find that lower-key varieties of gambling do not bring on full-fledged compulsive gambling. Thus, some people can resume gambling moderately and recreationally without further issues.

What’s wrong with going to the casino or betting on sports for fun?

Nothing is inherently wrong with gambling, just as nothing is wrong with drinking alcohol or taking pain medications. If gambling is fun for you, and it doesn’t interfere with other important areas of your life, then it’s fine in moderation.  The earliest records of gambling pre-date the calendar by about 200 years in China; early card games began in the 9th century, and the very first casinos emerged in the early 1700s in Italy. Since, many millions of people have enjoyed gambling, just as there have been many social and political efforts to limit and regulate—and even to ban—it.

As an individual, if you’re trying to save for a house, and you’re spending money you need for that purpose on gambling, then you it may be having harmful, even addictive, effects and you may wish to consider avoiding it.

Can gambling cause withdrawal?

In a word, “Yes.” Any activity that becomes compulsive, comes to dominate your life and that your structure regularly into your time may cause life disruptions should you choose to stop or reduce it. You may feel distracted, agitated, depressed, angry, weepy, ill, any number of things. Physical symptoms start to ease quickly. Mental and emotional upheaval may take some time. This is true of all addictions.

Isn’t everything okay as long as I’m not losing money?

That’s a good one for you to answer! Is it okay? What’s not okay? Sometimes gambling costs us time, attention, interest in things like our families or friends. There is nothing wrong with gambling itself. If it’s fun, that’s great. But if it’s getting in the way of the people and values you consider important, then it may not be serving you and your life well.

Questions for you to consider:

  1. Is gambling getting in the way of my fulfilling my other life obligations: e.g., parenthood, marriage or partnership, work, exercise?
  2. Am I gambling more and enjoying it less—in other words, is it starting to become compulsive?
  3. Am I becoming preoccupied with gambling—i.e., do I think about it and direct my life towards gambling opportunities when I am at  work, with my family, or involved in other recreational activities?
  4. Am I ashamed or guilty about the time I am spending gambling rather than being involved in other activities?
  5. Do I worry about the kind of role model I am being for my children, or even that I am presenting to friends or people in my community?

Positive answers to any of these questions are problem indicators along an addiction spectrum, even if you are not fully immersed in a gambling addiction.

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts by The Fix, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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