Compulsive gambling, also called gambling disorder, is the uncontrollable urge to keep gambling despite the toll it takes on your life. Gambling means that you’re willing to risk something you value in the hope of getting something of even greater value.
Gambling can stimulate the brain’s reward system much like drugs or alcohol can, leading to addiction. If you have a problem with compulsive gambling, you may continually chase bets that lead to losses, hide your behavior, deplete savings, accumulate debt, or even resort to theft or fraud to support your addiction.
Compulsive gambling is a serious condition that can destroy lives. Although treating compulsive gambling can be challenging, many people who struggle with compulsive gambling have found help through professional treatment.
Gambling disorder is a behavioral addiction diagnosis introduced in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth edition (DSM-5).1 This was the first formal recognition of behavioral addiction in the psychiatry text, which is considered the “gold standard” in the field of mental health. The previous version DSM-IV called the condition “pathological gambling” and it was classified as an impulse control disorder rather than as the addictive disorder.2
The parallels between gambling addiction and drug addiction have been drawn by experts for decades, although whether or not behavioral addictions share similar characteristics to substance addictions has always been controversial.
To meet the criteria for gambling disorder, a person has to have at least four of the problems identified below, within a 12-month period, in conjunction with “persistent and recurrent problematic gambling behavior:”3
- Needing to gamble with more money to get the same excitement from gambling as before
- Feels restless or irritable when trying to reduce or stop gambling
- Keeps trying to reduce or stop gambling without success
- Gambling is frequently on the person’s mind—both reliving past gambling experiences and planning future gambling events
- Gambles when feeling depressed, guilty, or anxious
- Tries to win back gambling losses
- Lies to cover up how much they are gambling
- Loses not only money, but also relationships, their job, or a significant career opportunity as a result of gambling
- Becomes dependent on other people to give them money to deal with financial problems that have been caused by gambling
How Gambling Disorder Is Distinct From Bipolar Disorder
What is now unquestioned is that gambling behaviors can become problematic, can lead to major financial and emotional problems, and are treatable using similar approaches to the treatment of substance addictions. This has been repeatedly demonstrated by research, and as a result, it is now fully recognized as an addictive disorder.4
Sometimes people who have bipolar disorder gamble a lot while they are having a manic episode.5 This is not a gambling disorder, even though the behaviors and the consequences can be similar.
However, this is not to say that gambling problems that happen during mania are not serious, but rather, to make the distinction between gambling problems that emerge from a pattern of addiction and those that occur during certain phases of bipolar disorder.
One of the features associated with gambling disorder is distortions in thinking.6 For example, like other addictions, denial is common. But unlike other addictions, people who develop gambling disorder are typically quite superstitious, and those superstitions reinforce the addiction, and belief in winning.7 Another pattern of distorted thinking that may occur in gambling disorder involves “chasing one’s losses.”
Prevalence of Suicide
Although gambling problems may seem trivial on the surface, in reality, they are anything but. One of the reasons that gambling disorder has become recognized is because of the severe consequences for individuals and their families.
Not only do some people who develop gambling disorder literally gamble away everything they own, and end up in crippling debt, but far more of them become suicidal than would be expected in the general population.
In treatment populations, about half of those with gambling disorder have suicidal ideation, and about 18% have attempted suicide.8
When to see a doctor or mental health professional
Have family members, friends or co-workers expressed concern about your gambling? If so, listen to their worries. Because denial is almost always a feature of compulsive or addictive behavior, it may be difficult for you to realize that you have a problem.
If you recognize your own behavior from the list of signs and symptoms for compulsive gambling, seek professional help.
Exactly what causes someone to gamble compulsively isn’t well-understood. Like many problems, compulsive gambling may result from a combination of biological, genetic and environmental factors.
Although most people who play cards or wager never develop a gambling problem, certain factors are more often associated with compulsive gambling:
- Mental health disorders. People who gamble compulsively often have substance abuse problems, personality disorders, depression or anxiety. Compulsive gambling may also be associated with bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Age. Compulsive gambling is more common in younger and middle-aged people. Gambling during childhood or the teenage years increases the risk of developing compulsive gambling. However, compulsive gambling in the older adult population can also be a problem.
- Sex. Compulsive gambling is more common in men than women. Women who gamble typically start later in life and may become addicted more quickly. But gambling patterns among men and women have become increasingly similar.
- Family or friend influence. If your family members or friends have a gambling problem, the chances are greater that you will, too.
- Medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease and restless legs syndrome. Drugs called dopamine agonists have a rare side effect that may result in compulsive behaviors, including gambling, in some people.
- Certain personality characteristics. Being highly competitive, a workaholic, impulsive, restless or easily bored may increase your risk of compulsive gambling.
Compulsive gambling can have profound and long-lasting consequences for your life, such as:
- Relationship problems
- Financial problems, including bankruptcy
- Legal problems or imprisonment
- Poor work performance or job loss
- Poor general health
- Suicide, suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts
Although there’s no proven way to prevent a gambling problem, educational programs that target individuals and groups at increased risk may be helpful.
If you have risk factors for compulsive gambling, consider avoiding gambling in any form, people who gamble and places where gambling occurs. Get treatment at the earliest sign of a problem to help prevent gambling from becoming worse.
Rennert L, Denis C, Peer K, Lynch KG, Gelernter J, Kranzler HR. DSM-5 gambling disorder: prevalence and characteristics in a substance use disorder sample. Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. 2014;22(1):50–56. doi:10.1037/a0034518
Stinchfield R, McCready J, Turner NE, et al. Reliability, validity, and classification accuracy of the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for gambling disorder and comparison to DSM-IV. J Gambl Stud. 2016;32(3):905–922. doi:10.1007/s10899-015-9573-7
American Psychiatric Association. What is gambling disorder? Updated August 2018.
Rash CJ, Weinstock J, Van Patten R. A review of gambling disorder and substance use disorders. Subst Abuse Rehabil. 2016;7:3–13. doi:10.2147/SAR.S83460
Jones L, Metcalf A, Gordon-Smith K, et al. Gambling problems in bipolar disorder in the UK: prevalence and distribution. Br J Psychiatry. 2015;207(4):328–333. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.114.154286
Menchon JM, Mestre-Bach G, Steward T, Fernández-Aranda F, Jiménez-Murcia S. An overview of gambling disorder: from treatment approaches to risk factors. F1000Res. 2018;7:434. doi:10.12688/f1000research.12784.1
Hahnmann TE. Moderate-risk and problem slot machine gamblers: a typology of gambling-related cognitions. J Gambl Issues. 2016;34. doi:10.4309/jgi.2016.34.8
Mallorquí-Bagué N, Mena-Moreno T, Granero R, et al. Suicidal ideation and history of suicide attempts in treatment-seeking patients with gambling disorder: the role of emotion dysregulation and high trait impulsivity. J Behav Addict. 2018;7(4):1112–1121. doi:10.1556/2006.7.2018.132
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). 2013.
- Gambling disorder. In: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-5. 5th ed. Arlington, Va.: American Psychiatric Association; 2013. http://www.psychiatryonline.org. Accessed Sept. 17, 2016.
- Domino FJ. Overview of gambling disorder. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Sept. 17, 2016.
- What is gambling disorder? American Psychiatric Association. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/gambling-disorder/what-is-gambling-disorder. Accessed Sept. 17, 2016.
- Help and treatment: Choosing a treatment facility. National Council on Problem Gambling. http://www.ncpgambling.org/help-treatment/choosing-a-treatment-facility/. Accessed Sept. 29, 2016.
- Hennessy G. Can medications help people with gambling disorder? Psychiatric News. http://psychnews.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.pn.2016.PP4a1. Accessed Sept. 17, 2016.
- Hall-Flavin DK (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Sept. 29, 2016.