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Do I Have a Gambling Problem?

By Andrew McNaughton, LCSW, CADC

Gambling has pretty much always been popular since money has existed. Today, it is as immediately accessible as it ever has been through online lottery purchases and mobile apps for casinos and sportsbooks, where players can win and lose real money really fast. In Illinois, online sports betting became legal in 2020, just in time for the professional football season to start. Advertisements for titillating promotions make the lure of trying sports betting seem harmless. Meanwhile, traditional forms of legal gambling (casinos, gas station lottery, slot machines, etc.) remain, as do all forms of illegal gambling that lurk in the shadows. 

People like to gamble because it provides a momentary thrill. Even in losing, a person who is gambling can enjoy the excitement while their brain is producing adrenaline and endorphins. Many people participate in gambling (82.4% men, 76.5% women, any gambling in past year), but a much smaller percentage meet criteria for problematic or pathological gambling (5.6% men, 2.7% women). So how does one measure if they are engaging in problematic gambling?

GAMBLING DISORDER

The DSM-5, the most recent revision published in 2013, included for the first time Gambling Disorder (F63.0). To meet criteria for this disorder, an individual must suffer impairment in daily functioning over a 12-month period, in at least four of the following areas: 

  •     Tolerance, needing to gamble with higher stakes to achieve the desired level of thrill;
  •     Withdrawal, feeling restless and irritable when attempting to cut down or cease gambling;
  •     Repeated failures to control or cease gambling;
  •     Preoccupation with gambling (planning, recalling past experiences, or acquiring funds for future bets);
  •     Gambles to cope with emotional discomfort;
  •     Engaging in attempts to win back losses;
  •     Lying to cover or downplay level of involvement with gambling;
  •     Behavior has damaged or costs personal or professional relationships/opportunities; and
  •     Reliance on others to bail them out of financial hardships created by gambling behaviors.

Above are the clinical diagnostic criteria, but there are other factors to consider. Most people engaged in gambling will experience some preoccupation with losses and even try to chase them or win them back, however long term chasing is indicative of addictive behavior. Let’s say I just won a bet. Am I pleased that I won a few bucks, or am I irritated that I did not bet more to win more? Am I spending more time gambling than I intended to, or am I reaching for my gambling app more than I plan to? Is my thinking distorted, relying on magical thinking, or following a “gut feeling” to play a certain game? Is gambling hurting me physically, emotionally, or psychologically? Is this interfering with my relationships? Is this impacting me financially? Is this putting my legal freedom in jeopardy?

If the answer to any of these is yes, then yes, gambling has likely become a problem.

WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT IT?

In short, make it as difficult as possible for yourself to gamble! Giving yourself this opportunity to delay giving into an urge can help make an informed decision. Don’t keep cash on hand. Delete lottery, casino, sportsbook, and fantasy sports apps. Delete your bookies’ contact. Opt in for an extended “cool off” period, and set stringent player limits on your account (these are strictly enforced by the host apps/sites). Consider taking a giant leap to register for Self-Exclusion with the Illinois Gaming Board to help prevent players from returning to casinos. 

Then consider getting some help. Start with support groups. Gamblers Anonymous offers a 12-Step approach specifically designed to address the needs of problematic gambling behavior. SMART Recovery more broadly teaches skills for making self-directed changes. Seek professional help with a therapist who specializes in gambling and addictive behaviors. You can make this change. It won’t be easy, but it is far from unbearable! 

If you are concerned about your gambling, or about any other addictive behavior, Symmetry Counseling has many addiction specialists on our clinical staff. Contact us today for a free initial consultation and get paired with a counselor in Chicago.

Sources:

DSM-5, APA (2013). Gambling Disorder, 585-589.

Welte, J. W., Barnes, G. M., Tidwell, M. C., Hoffman, J. H., & Wieczorek, W. F. (2015). Gambling and Problem Gambling in the United States: Changes Between 1999 and 2013. Journal of gambling studies, 31(3), 695–715. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10899-014-9471-4

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