As we look closer at problem gambling, it is important to recognize that the majority of people can gamble safely. For many gambling can be treated like any other form of entertainment. However, for some, gambling can become problematic and the urge to gamble may become difficult to control.
For some readers our there in might be a little difficult to picture what problem gambling actually looks like. The most distinguishing characteristic of problem gambling is it’s tenancy to to negatively affect many areas of our lives. We might find that gambling is starting to interfere with our work, school, or other responsibilities. Gambling might also be negatively affecting our finances, personal relationships, mental and physical health, and, though we might not be completely aware of it, our reputation. Like many other addictions, gambling can lead to intense cravings, we might find ourselves lying about where we’ve been, denial is very common, and we might refuse to to see gambling as a reason for problems in our life. This can be especially true if our friends and family have tried to draw our attention to our gambling, we’re likely to get defensive and dismissive of those worries. Unlike many other addictions, problem gambling can be easier to hide since there is no substance being put into the body. This can make it a lot harder for people to connect the dots and see something is actually wrong.
Problem gambling made its first official appearance in 1980 in the 3rd edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), which is a highly regarded manual referred to by psychologists and psychiatrists. At the time, gambling was considered an impulse control disorder and it was placed in the same category as kleptomania (recurrent urge to steal) and pyromania (obsessive desire to start things on fire). However, in 2013, gambling was reclassified as a substance-related and addictive disorder, which is the same classification as alcohol and drug addictions.
Research done over the last 40 years has helped us better understand gambling addiction and we’ve learned a lot about how gambling disorder relates to other substance related addictions. Some of these similarities are as follows:
Research suggests problem gambling, like substance abuse, has a hereditary link. This link for problem gamblers is most prevalent in men whose biological fathers were also problem gamblers.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)
This is a relatively new way of thinking about addictions in general. First developed in the 1980’s by Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda, ACE scores looked at various forms of childhood trauma. Participants are asked 10 questions about their childhood. Each question is based around a form of childhood trauma, Physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, etc. Patients said they had experienced one or more of these traumas as a child were much more likely to be engaged in some addictive behavior as an adult. For example, patients who had experienced 4 of the 10 traumas were 700% more likely to experience problems with alcohol later in life compared to someone with a score of 0. Someone with an ACE scores of 6 or higher was associated with a 3000% increase in the likely hood of an attempted suicide. It’s theorized that stressful experiences in childhood result in maladapted coping strategies which, later in life, express themselves as addictions like gambling, or alcoholism. These early stresses change the way young brains are wired making them more susceptible to addictive behavious later in life.
Experiences of Cravings and Highs
Cravings and highs, which are a well known side effects of alcohol and drug use, are ALSO experienced in problem gambling. Gamblers can absolutely crave gambling and experience a “dopamine rush” or “dopamine high” when gambling. In particular, slot machine users report getting “lost in the machine” or entering an almost trance-like state where they lose track of their surroundings and time, this is sometimes referred to as “Dark Flow”. Similar to substance use, we might also find ourselves gambling more and more money to feel the same “rush” or excitement. We usually refer to this as tolerance.
The same type of treatment available for substance addictions is also being used to treat problem gambling. Options like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and the 12 Step Programs used for alcohol or narcotics have both proven to be effective forms of treatment for some problem gamblers. Some researchers also think there may be medications which could help treat cravings to gamble. There are medications currently available for nicotine or alcohol addictions and it’s thought that something similar may eventually be developed to help with gambling, though nothing is commercially available yet.
Despite the similarities, there are notable differences between substance abuse and problem gambling, such as:
Alcohol abuse, for example, has notable tell-tale signs of use. The symptoms include things like slurred words, the smell of alcohol on the breath, red eyes, and a lack of balance and coordination. Problem gambling, on the other hand, has no noticeable physical symptoms. This can make a gambling addiction very easy to hide since there is no “breathalyzer” for gamblers.
Unlike substance abuse, there is no way to “overdose” on gambling. We’re not putting anything into our bodies so there’s nothing that’s going to poison us or stop our heart. Instead, the “damage” that’s caused by gambling is more external and manifests in things like mental distress, financial hardships, or strained relationships.
Problem gambling is FED by irrational thoughts, superstitions and distortions in thinking. In some cases, a lack of understanding of how gambling games really work is also a major factor. For example, we might feel as thought we have control over the outcome of a slot machine spin because we’ve been using the same machine, or we’re betting a certain way. However, because slot machines work using computer software called a Random Number Generator, there is no way to influence the out come of any spin. Every spin has the same odds of winning as the spin before and for slot machines here in Saskatchewan the odds of hitting a jackpot are about 1 chance in 650,000, according to SaskGaming’s own literature. If we, for example, played 10 spins on a slot machine, our first spin would have a 1 in 650,00 chance of hitting the jackpot, as would our next spin, and so on. The odds simply never change. Machines don’t get “hot” because they haven’t won in a while, their odds have and always will be 1 in 650,000 for the jackpot.
The suicide risk for problem gambling is high, in fact, its higher for gambling disorder than it is for substance abuse. One of the main reason for this elevated suicide risk we’ve already mentioned, gambling addictions can be pretty easy to hide. Most of us with a gambling disorder may be hiding debts from our families, or we may have even tapped into savings that we never intended to use for gambling. These financial losses can be sever and unfortunately, many of us with a gambling problem never discuss our struggles until we feel there is no escape from the decisions we’ve made while gambling. There are services out there and we certainly encourage anyone reading this to look at contacting the SPGH.ca or the Credit Counseling Society.
Addiction is a powerful force; it can tear individuals and families apart and leaving those struggling in a dangerous place. Gambling addiction can easily alter our lives very quickly. The desire to chase after losses or “zone out” for hours can quickly run up debt, while the mental burden of losing great sums of money can lead to depression and other serious mental health conditions. Gambling can also be accompanied by substance use problems which can put us at an even greater risk. The more we understand the potential harms of problem gambling, the better we can protect ourselves and our loved ones.