A gambling addiction often occurs gradually. The line between harmless and harmful is often blurred, so people don’t always recognize they have a problem until it becomes severe. Here is what is considered the threshold of low-risk gambling:
- You gamble no more than 1% of household income.
- You gamble no more than four days per month.
- You don’t gamble at more than two types of games.
What does gambling disorder share with other forms of addiction?
Gambling disorder shares certain risk factors with other types of addiction:
- faulty thought patterns
- impulse control disorders
- availability in one’s community
Like other types of addiction, gambling-related problems can lead to disrupted romantic, social, and work relationships. Feelings of withdrawal when someone tries to cut back are similar, too.
Does online gambling affect the brain?
Gambling games can affect people at the neurobiological level. Many games have features that trick the brain into thinking a loss is actually a win. For example, a slot machine displays celebratory music, sounds, and lights for a $3 return on a $5 bet.
“Research has found that our sympathetic nervous system responds to losses celebrated as wins the same way it responds to actual wins,” says LaPlante. “This is a powerful reinforcer, and just one example of games affecting brains.”
How can you find help for problem gambling?
Finding help for gambling can be challenging because, unlike for other types of addiction, the number of professionals who treat gambling addiction is limited, according to LaPlante. “Also, because of shame and stigma, people are less likely to acknowledge that gambling can become a problem,” she says.
Still, resources such as Gamblers Anonymous, local and national crisis helplines like 1-800-GAMBLER, self-help books such as Your First Step to Change, and local departments of public health are available to connect people to help.
Addiction treatment is not an exact science, and success varies from person to person. Some treatments have shown promise for gambling disorders, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing.
“If the gambling addiction is a symptom of another mental or physical health problem, addressing those issues is essential,” says LaPlante.
What does recovery from a gambling problem look like?
Different people have different ideas about what it means to be recovered from gambling addiction. For some, this means completely cutting gambling out of their life; for others, it means cutting back.
“Ideally, the treatment experience will include plans to prevent lapses that take people away from maintaining their own goals,” says LaPlante.
Debi LaPlante, director of the Division on Addiction at Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance
- Reviewed by Howard E. LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing