The National Council on Problem Gambling reports that over 5 million Americans meet the criteria for gambling addiction. Of these, 75% have had problems with alcohol, 38% have had problems with drugs, and 20% have either made an attempt at or committed suicide. These numbers are staggering, and reveal an important link between gambling and substance abuse disorders. Gambling addiction is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as “Persistent and recurrent problematic gambling behavior leading to clinically significant impairment or distress.”

Gambling and the Brain

Research on the brain has provided considerable insight into the nature of gambling addiction. In many cases, gambling addicts share the same genetic predispositions to impulsivity and reward seeking as alcoholics or addicts (also explaining why there is so much overlap between these populations). Further, both behaviors tend to escalate over time- as addicts or alcoholics will progressively consume more of their chosen substance and seek stronger options, gambling addicts will increase the frequency and amount they are gambling with in an effort to continue to “get the high”. And because gambling can act on the same reward centers in the brain as drugs and alcohol, when a gambling addict is separated from that behavior, they can experience comparable cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

This is why for addicts or alcoholics, gambling is especially dangerous behavior. To the brain, gambling can become indistinguishable from drug or alcohol use. One potential implication of this is that addicts and alcoholics are much more likely to exhibit problematic gambling behavior- spending money they don’t have, stealing or lying to support their habit, and placing reliance in the thrill and comfort provided by “winning” instead of in their higher power and service to others. Additionally, gambling can put someone in recovery at a real risk for relapse. As the focus becomes increasingly centered on gambling, one’s program of recovery tends to suffer- and with little to no spiritual solution and a brain that is receiving the same stimulation provided by substance abuse, it is a short road to picking back up the drug or drink.

How do I know if I or someone I know has a problem with gambling?

The Mayo Clinic lists potential signs and symptoms of gambling addiction:

  • Gaining a thrill from taking big gambling risks
  • Taking increasingly bigger gambling risks
  • Preoccupation with gambling
  • Reliving past gambling experiences
  • Gambling as a way to escape problems or feelings of helplessness, guilt or depression
  • Taking time from work or family life to gamble
  • Concealing or lying about gambling
  • Feeling guilt or remorse after gambling
  • Borrowing money or stealing to gamble
  • Failed efforts to cut back on gambling

What Can I Do About It?

The National Council on Problem Gambling sponsors a 24-hour confidential helpline (1-800-522-4700) for people who have questions or concerns about problem gambling. Further, their website offers Help and Treatment resources, where you can search for help by state, or locate a gambling addiction treatment facility. If you also have a drug or alcohol problem, be sure to look for a facility with dual diagnosis capabilities, so that both problem can be addressed concurrently and your odds of recovery will be more secure.