How to Recognize a Gambling Disorder

Gambling involves risking money or something of value for the chance to win more than is wagered. It can be fun, but it can also lead to problems. A gambling addiction can cost people their jobs, homes and families. Fortunately, help is available.

There are many reasons why people gamble, and these may vary from person to person. Some gamble to escape the monotony of daily life and experience an exhilarating rush. Others do it for social or financial reasons. In some cases, they are trying to make up for previous losses or a bad financial situation. It is important to know the odds when playing casino games, and it is advisable to avoid those that have a high house edge.

The psychiatric community once categorized pathological gambling as impulse control disorder, which is a rag-bag label that includes such conditions as compulsive stealing and trichotillomania (compulsive hair-pulling). In the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, however, it has been moved into the category of addictions. This move reflects growing evidence of comorbidity, shared genetic liability and the existence of cravings in those with pathological gambling.

A key factor in the onset and maintenance of problem gambling is the perception that the game offers a chance to achieve a positive expected value. Physiologically, this expectation is triggered by environmental cues such as flashing lights and the chime of coins, which become conditioned stimuli through Pavlovian processes. Those who have a cognitive bias toward gambling also tend to view the outcome of a gamble as the result of skill, and they will overestimate their own ability to do well in a gambling activity.

Addiction to gambling can have serious ramifications, especially when it interferes with a person’s daily functioning and causes recurrent loss of control. People with this condition may find themselves lying to family members, therapists or other professionals about their gambling habits, and they will often engage in behaviors that can be illegal, such as forgery, theft or embezzlement to finance their gambling. They will likely lose their job, educational or career opportunities, and their relationships may suffer as a consequence.

There are a number of ways to seek treatment for gambling disorder, including psychotherapy, support groups and medication. Psychotherapy is a form of talk therapy that can help those with this condition learn to manage their impulses and change their thoughts and behaviors. Some types of psychotherapy can also be effective in treating other disorders, such as bipolar disorder and depression. Medications that are used to treat problem gambling include antidepressants and certain antipsychotics. These medications can help reduce the symptoms of these disorders, such as irritability and restlessness, and improve concentration. They can also increase the chances of winning at a casino or other gambling venue by helping to regulate blood pressure and heart rate. They can also help with anxiety, which is commonly associated with gambling disorders. However, these medications do not have the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and should be taken only under a doctor’s supervision.