Gambling is often seen as harmless fun, and many people are able to do it from time to time without developing an addiction. This makes it difficult for some people to realize when it’s becoming a problem.
Unfortunately, few people who struggle with gambling addiction get the help they need. In fact, many people are unaware that there is rehab available for gambling. But the truth is that there are plenty of effective programs available for treating gambling addiction. Let’s take a look at how this addiction develops, what encourages many people to quit, and how you can find support to do the same.
Gambling can include activities such as buying lottery tickets, playing slot machines at a casino, betting at races, hosting poker nights with friends, and more. While these activities aren’t necessarily problematic in and of themselves, they’re considered a gambling disorder1 when they include “recurrent, maladaptive gambling behavior that results in clinically significant distress.”
About 0.5% of Americans experience gambling problems,2 according to data from national surveys. However, studies have shown that only 10% of people with a gambling addiction ever seek help, with financial issues being the most common motivation. And often when people do get into treatment, they do so for other symptoms such as insomnia or depression, which they may or may not realize are related.
Although medication can be used to treat this condition, studies have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a much more effective treatment option for gambling addiction.1 Other talk therapies are also proven to work well, and can provide both short- and long-term benefits.
However, more research needs to be done in order to fully determine the most effective treatment for gambling disorders. Additionally, every person’s situation is unique, and each treatment plan needs to be tailored to their needs, especially if co-occurring disorders are a concern.
Research shows that CBT is extremely successful in treating gambling addictions.1 This psychotherapy aims to change negative and dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors by replacing them with positive ones. When used to treat gambling addiction, this involves “identifying and changing cognitive distortions about gambling, reinforcing nongambling behaviors, and recognizing positive and negative consequences.” This helps people with a gambling disorder understand that the long-term negative effects, such as debt, legal issues, and damaged relationships, outweigh the short-term benefits.
Relapse prevention planning is often used in combination with CBT. In this technique, the patient is taught to recognize and either avoid or navigate situations that could lead to relapse. Someone with a gambling disorder may learn that these include locations like casinos, negative feelings such as anger or depression, and other stressors like work or family issues.
Therapy sessions held online or over the phone are another option that can provide flexibility, anonymity, and confidentiality.
This technique has shown a lot of promise as an effective approach to treating gambling addiction.1 During this approach, a trained therapist works with patients to help them determine why it’s so hard to change their behavior. Normative feedback, which has patients compare their gambling behavior to that of the general population to help them see their maladaptive behavior, is a core part of this approach.
Research shows that motivational interviewing is associated with less gambling, as well as psychosocial improvements and a better overall quality of life. Some studies show that just 15 minutes of MI can be even more successful in treating a gambling disorder3 than longer and more intensive treatment methods.
At this time, the FDA has not approved any medications for gambling disorder treatment.1 Research is taking place but nothing has been proven yet, although one study showed that 2 antidepressant drugs, paroxetine and fluvoxamine, were significantly superior to the placebo in treating people with a gambling addiction.
The opioid antagonists naltrexone and nalmefene have also shown promising results, but further studies are needed to determine if they’re effective for everyone.
Involving family members in the recovery process shows very positive outcomes for those struggling with addiction. If it’s important to you to include loved ones in your recovery journey, you can look for a rehab that offers family involvement. Many treatment centers offer family therapy (either remote or in-person) and on-site family programming as part of their residential care.
Mindfulness is another treatment that has positive effects for those recovering from gambling addiction.1 This technique is shown to minimize levels of severity, abstinence, and craving in people with gambling disorders, as well as improving quality of life and mental and emotional states.
Gamblers Anonymous (GA) is a support group4 for people in recovery from this addiction. Members go through a 12-Step program (similar to Alcoholics Anonymous) and choose a sponsor to support them along the way. If you attend a 12-Step rehab, you may attend GA meetings as part of your residential treatment program. Many people choose to attend support groups, 12-Step or otherwise, as part of their continuing care plan for ongoing recovery.
You may also choose to sign up for a self-exclusion program to prevent you from gambling2 in the future. Studies show that this approach reduces the amount of gambling in people with gambling disorders. Once you sign up, you’ll be prohibited from gambling for a certain period of time, chosen by you﹘even for life if you choose. If you gamble during your banned period, you will be asked to leave, need to return any money won, and may even be charged for trespassing. You can perform a quick online search to see if your state offers an initiative like this.
Adolescents are especially vulnerable and much more likely to develop a gambling addiction than older adults. Impulsivity is a common factor in all addictions, and gambling disorder is no exception. Other psychological factors associated with gambling problems are harm avoidance, low self-directedness, difficulty making decisions and planning, and sensation-seeking behaviors. Gambling disorders may also develop as a coping mechanism3 for mood and anxiety disorders.
Among older adults, men have a higher chance of developing a gambling problem than other genders, as well as ethnic minorities, people with lower income and socioeconomic status, lower education levels, and unmarried status. One study found that most adults with this addiction use gambling to alleviate boredom or their inability to do an activity they previously enjoyed.
The extreme financial consequences of gambling addiction make it particularly insidious, because these can spill over into so many other areas of life. If you’re considering getting help for gambling-related problems, you may have already experienced some of the following:
All that additional stress can lead to significant problems at home—which is why gambling disorder is associated with higher rates of divorce6 and domestic violence.7 Family members may also develop depression or anxiety, or use substances to cope.
It’s also common for people with a gambling disorder to have legal problems. One study found that about 25% of people with a gambling disorder had done something illegal related to gambling,8 including stealing, writing bad checks, and using unauthorized credit cards.
Gambling disorders often co-occur with substance use disorders9 and other behavioral health issues. Gambling and substance use disorders share certain behavioral traits, including loss of control, cravings, tolerance, and withdrawal. (In the case of gambling addiction, “tolerance” refers to the need to risk more money to feel the same thrill.)
Alcohol is often easily available in casinos and other gambling environments. And as the consequences of the addiction (like financial loss and relationship problems) progress, substances can be a way to cope. In turn, alcohol and drug use encourage impulsive behavior—which makes it even harder to stop problem gambling.
If you’re struggling with financial or family problems due to gambling, life can feel out of control. But the good news is that there’s plenty of support available from professionals with experience treating people in your very situation. And so many people who worked through the challenges of gambling addiction recovery are now living happy, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
Choosing a few addiction treatment programs that seem like a good fit for you and getting further information from their admissions staff is a great place to start.
See our directory of gambling rehabs to further explore your options and see program information, specializations, staff qualifications, and more.
Reviewed by Lisa Misquith