Jeremy Edge, LPC
Gambling Madness: Understanding Gambling Addiction and Treatment
Updated: Apr 23, 2019
Anyone a basketball fan? March Madness is intense this year! There have been so many upsets and extremely close games. There are teams that were not favored to win but pulled it off. North Carolina was ranked # 1 in the Midwest but was destroyed by # 5 Auburn. Texas Tech has never been to a championship, and they are in the final four. And it’s not over! There are more exciting games to come.
Filling out a March Madness bracket is fun. It’s exciting to see how far your picks will go and if you can win your office’s prize pool. We get a rush of excitement when our teams make it far. Even if we are not into college basketball, we still can enjoy the friendly competition we have with our co-workers, friends, or family.
It is common to do some betting during March Madness. Betting on your March Madness bracket could be the only time you gamble. Or gambling of any kind could be something you only do occasionally. It could be something you enjoy but don’t have time for. Or you could think it's a waste of time. But that is not the case for all. Some are addicted to gambling and have a gambling disorder. Here are some problems one faces with a Gambling Disorder.
Preoccupation With Gambling
For some, gambling and betting is a primary focus in their life. They enjoy it so much, they spend most of their time thinking about when they will gamble next and how they will do it. “Where will I go? How much will I gamble? Where will I get the money? What am I going to do with my winnings?” All of these are things one may think of when completely focused on gambling.
They may think about the last time they gambled. They could be playing in their head their last gambling experience and thinking about what they did well or how they could have gambled differently. Their thoughts could be on different strategies they can do in order to win. Or different types of games they could get lucky playing. People who constantly think about gambling could be able to function in their careers and families, but those areas could suffer.
When someone is complexly focused on gambling and has a gambling disorder, it usually takes a toll on all areas of their life. They may have a successful job or career, but their performance may not be as positive as it should be. When they are at work, rather than focusing all their time and energy on their work, they find themselves distracted by gambling. They could be planning out when they will gamble after work or how to justify a long lunch break in order to gamble. Some may even find a way to gamble online at work.
Not only will someone’s career take a hit with problematic gambling, they usually have problems with their relationships. If they are married, they may spend less and less time with their spouse in order to gamble more. Their relationship may be strained due to a lack of physical and emotional intimacy because one would rather gamble then spend time with their spouse.
An addicted gambler could also see problems with their relationships with their kids. Rather than spending meaningful time with them, they are thinking about when they can leave to gamble. Or they may miss going to their kids sporting events because they are gambling. It’s easy for a person struggling with Gambling Disorder to become distant from their kids and spouse because they are more focused on gambling than their family.
People who have a gambling problem also have huge financial problems. Gambling takes money, and the house wins most of the time. An addicted gambler could be in severe debt. They have to rely on others for financial support because they spend all they have on gambling. This issue goes back to affecting the relationship with their spouse or loved ones. When a spouse of a person with Gambling Disorder sees how much money they have been spending, the spouse may experience shock, anger, and sadness. The spouse feels they can’t trust them anymore because of all the money spent on gambling.
With all these issues, what can someone do if they are addicted to gambling? What treatments are out there for Gambling Disorder and what can the family do? Is it possible to have a life debt free and not controlled by gambling? Yes, it is. There are great treatment options out there for those in this Gambling Disorder boat.
Gambling Disorder Treatment
Find a Mental Health Professional
One of the first things one can do to treat gambling disorder is start therapy with a licensed therapist. Find a counselor, psychologist, or any mental health professional that you connect with and can walk with you to achieve your goals. A proven therapeutic modality that helps those with Gambling Disorder is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Ask the counselor you find if they use CBT in their sessions. Here is a good article explaining CBT and how it is helpful in treating Gambling Disorder. https://learn.problemgambling.ca/eip/cognitive-behavioural-therapy
Join a Support Group
One of the biggest issues someone faces with gambling disorder is financial strain. Addressing the person’s financial situation is a must when treating Gambling Disorder. Working with your counselor or psychologist will help you address your financial stress. There are also 12 step groups that operate similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. Gamblers Anonymous and Debtors Anonymous are 12 step groups that offer support and guidance for those struggling with Gambling Disorder and problematic gambling. These programs can be found across the U.S. Here is a link to find a local Gamblers Anonymous meeting near you. http://www.gamblersanonymous.org/ga/locations
Strengthen Good Relationships
No matter if the person with a gambling addiction is single and living alone or married with four kids, they will need to work on improving their support network. They will need to strengthen relationships around them that can encourage, help, love, and support them during their recovery process. Again, counseling can help with this, but they can start now.
If you are addicted to gambling, start to strengthen the natural relationships around you. Spend more quality time with your friends and family. It’s natural for someone with a Gambling Disorder, or any disorder, to struggle with opening up to others. They can feel a lot of guilt and shame. It can be difficult to share what they are going through and to ask for help. We are more likely to open up to those we trust. So, work on building trust with your loved ones and the ones you need love from.
Understand the Treatment Process
Working through an addiction is hard, but it can be helpful to understand the process. When someone is addicted to gambling, their brain has been used to high levels of dopamine which is a neurochemical in charge of pleasure. Normal activities that give us pleasure like eating a good meal or walking outside on a nice sunny day, do not produce as much dopamine as gambling or an addictive activity. When someone who has Gambling Disorder stops gambling, normal activities that would produce dopamine and make them feel good would not do anything. At least it would feel that way.
Their brain has become desensitized to normal levels of dopamine. Someone in treatment for Gambling Disorder will initially struggle with finding pleasure in things outside of gambling because they have been used to those high levels of dopamine. The brain changed, but it can continue to change for the better. Here is more information on how the brain reacts to Gambling Disorder. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-brain-gets-addicted-to-gambling/
Certain medications have been found to assist in the treatment process of Gambling Disorder. Opioid antagonists address impulse control and have been found to help reduce the urge to gamble. I am not going to recommend any medications outside of the broad spectrum of opioid antagonists because I am not an MD or psychiatrist. Talk with your primary care doctor and/or psychiatrist about the possibility of using opioid antagonists medication to help you in your recovery process from Gambling Disorder.
March Madness is almost over, but the gambling continues for some. If you know someone whose life is negatively impacted by gambling, start a non-judgmental conversation with them today. Meet them where they are, and don’t feel you have to change them. Be there for them and encourage them to reach out to someone if they want help. Remember, it’s not your job to make them change. Only a person who really wants to change can make it happen.