If you’re worried you may have a gambling problem, you’re not alone. It’s estimated there are upwards of 400,000 problem gamblers in the UK with another 3.4 million people at risk. The first step to overcoming a gambling addiction is to understand what it is, how to recognize it, and more importantly, what to do about it.
- 1 What Is Gambling Addiction?
- 2 Symptoms of Gambling Addiction
- 3 Diagnosing Gambling Addiction
- 4 Prevalence of Gambling Addiction
- 5 Resources for Gambling Addiction
- 6 The Bottom Line
What Is Gambling Addiction?
The operative word here is addiction. An addiction is a condition characterized by a compulsive, chronic, physiological, or psychological need. That need may be to a harmful habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity.
A gambling addiction requires more than just wanting to gamble—or even frequently gambling. It’s an inability not to gamble despite known negative consequences or a desire to stop. Once the activity moves from a choice to a compulsion, it’s classified as an addiction.
There are many different reasons why gambling problems develop, but broadly speaking, those reasons can be attributed to biological and psychological mechanisms.
Biological Mechanisms Associated with Gambling Addiction
There is evidence that pathological gambling has similar qualities to chemical addiction. According to the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, there are measurable chemical changes in people who are predisposed to problematic gambling or already exhibit the behavior. While these changes affect 0.2 to 5.3 per cent of adults worldwide, gamblers often don’t receive adequate treatment to deal with their disorder—if they receive treatment at all.
One trait common to gamblers is a lowered level of norepinephrine. This compound, which works as a hormone and neurotransmitter, plays a pivotal component in the neurological response to loss. Reduced sensitivity to loss, including monetary, may lead to a gambling problem.
Those with normal norepinephrine levels have a sense of loss aversion. They have an emotional response to the idea of losing something. That response becomes more intense as the potential loss, or sum of money, increases until it is so strong that loss aversion outweighs their desire to acquire equivalent gains, and they stop gambling.
Low serotonin levels are another common gambler trait. This neurotransmitter is responsible for regulating mood and social behaviour. Those with low levels of serotonin may experience depression, anxiety, insomnia, or diminished self-esteem. It may also contribute to gambling problems.
Some studies have even tested the use of antidepressants as a way to counteract compulsive gambling and found positive results. Without delving too deep into the science, antidepressants can mitigate problems with serotonergic reuptake inhibitors, which may not release enough serotonin.
Third, gamblers may have a natural predisposition for pathological behaviour, such as kleptomania or drug abuse. Some studies back this idea up by showing a direct link between pathological gambling and substance abuse. There may also be a connection between problem gambling and poor diet, lack of exercise, and low emotional and mental well-being.
Psychological Mechanisms Associated with Gambling Addiction
Some researchers believe social factors have a prominent influence on gambling behavior. The argument is that focusing on chemical mechanisms involves studying individuals rather than society as a whole. Many believe it would be more practical to examine the full range of social factors at play.
For instance, the number of gamblers increases when there is ubiquitous marketing or promotion. This example came into the public eye in the United Kingdom in 2007. The country saw an increase in problem gambling after restrictions on commercials and advertisements for betting shops, casinos, bookmakers, and gambling sites were lifted.
Additionally, those with a gambling problem tend to have weaker reward processing. This process represents a human’s response, learning, and anticipation of rewarding stimuli. For instance, an average person that won a million-dollar jackpot would be over the moon because the reward is significant, and the odds were slim to none. Problem gamblers may feel a reduced version of that joy.
Gambling also inherently plays on the ego. People bet because they believe they have the skill, knowledge, or luck to earn more money than they spend. While there are some cases where this scenario checks out, as Danny Ocean says, “The house always wins. You play long enough, never change the stakes; the house takes.”
The protagonist of Ocean’s Eleven has a point. Casinos and sportsbooks have to earn money to stay in business. The house always wins because it takes a small percentage of each wager and takes a large number of bets.
Even choosing a user-friendly game like blackjack, the households an edge of 0.5 to 2 per cent. The odds become stronger in the houses favour the longer time goes on, too, because the quantity of bets reduces the chances of anomalously outstanding performance. If someone bets £10,000 on blackjack over a single day, the average casino will earn £50 to £200.
Another way of viewing this built-in edge is as an appeal to gambler’s narcissism and egotism. While there are a few people good enough to bet professionally, the supermajority of the population will net a loss. This cognitive bias is evident in the Dunning-Kruger effect, which suggests that low ability people don’t possess the skills to recognize their inability.
Researchers have also attributed gambling addiction to criminal spin theory, which is also known as the gambling spin process. The phenomenon characterizes the development of progressively more problematic gambling behavior. The idea is that behavior starts with innocent intentions and snowballs into a chain of unstoppable reactions.
One example of criminal spin theory in the gambling world is the notion of chasing losses. This process means that a gambler has lost money and needs to make progressively larger bets to dig themselves out of the hole. Of course, that task can prove Sisyphean when the casino has a perpetual edge.
The psychological mechanisms of gambling addiction can take many other forms. Some gamblers are locked into a cycle of negative reinforcement, while others use it as a form of escapism. When gambling is presented through these constructs, the addiction comes as a by-product of gamblers wanting to get away from current problems in their lives.
Symptoms of Gambling Addiction
Every person has a unique level of vulnerability to gambling addiction. These levels will depend on factors, such as mental health, age, sex, social circle, and personality. Most people will never have to deal with this disorder, but those that do may experience some of the following symptoms:
- A preoccupation with betting, such as figuring out how to bet more money
- Inability to control urges to gamble
- Need to bet increasingly large amounts of money to feel excited
- Restlessness or irritability when not gambling or when someone hinders gambling
- Gambling as a distraction from problems
- Gambling to cope with anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem
- Trying to chase losses
- Lying to friends and family members to gamble more
- Willingness to risk valuable relationships for gambling
- Committing theft or fraud to enable wagering
Remember, gambling addiction can take many forms. The stylised version of gambling features glitzy casinos, tall stacks of chips, and endless tables and slot machines. Lower stakes ventures, such as buying a lottery ticket or entering a raffle, also count as forms of betting.
Diagnosing Gambling Addiction
Unfortunately, classifying a gambling addiction is not as straightforward as testing for an infectious disease. The evaluation is subjective and is challenging to determine based on the small sample size. While self-diagnosis is a potential step in the right direction, potentially chronic gamblers likely benefit most from professional evaluation.
One of the first steps towards scientific diagnosis was the South Oaks Gambling Screen (SOGS.) Doctors Henry Lesieur and Sheila Blume developed the instrument to test for probable pathological gambling habits. The test featured 16 questions and a maximum score of 20.
Those who scored zero had “no problem gambling,” while those in the one to four range had “some problems with gambling.” Anyone with a score higher than four was a “probable pathological gambler.” While the SOGS gained popularity after its introduction in 1987, it faded in usage because of its tendency to give out too many false positives.
Two modernized versions of SOGS include the Victorian Gambling Screen (VGS) and the Canadian Problem Gambling Index (CPGI.) These tests focus more heavily on the psychological behaviours associated with gambling. They also feature harms related to gambling more prominently in the calculation.
Let’s examine the CPGI further. The test evaluates gambling severity over 12 months on a scale from zero to three, which corresponds to “Never” and “Almost Always,” respectively. Here are some of the sample questions:
- Have you bet more than you could afford to lose?
- Have you borrowed money or sold anything to get money to gamble?
- Have you felt that you might have a problem with gambling?
- Has your gambling caused any financial problems for you or your household?
- Have you felt guilty about the way you gamble or what happens when you gamble?
The maximum score on the CPGI is 30. Those who fall in the range from zero to seven have no to moderate levels of difficulty with gambling, which may lead to some negative consequences. Those who score higher are at a significantly greater risk for harmful outcomes and loss of control.
Prevalence of Gambling Addiction
According to research, pathological gamblers make up around 0.1 to 0.6 per cent of the population. That figure may be more than four times higher for problem gamblers. Gambling hotbeds, such as Las Vegas in the US, are known to have a population with 2.7 to 4.3 per cent pathological gamblers. Of course, this figure is also a classic case of “which came first: the chicken or the egg?”
These figures are relatively stable across the globe. For instance, Europe, which has a rich gambling history and beacons of robust regulation, has a problem gambling rate of 0.5 to 3 per cent. Canadians come in at 0.5 to 1 per cent, which equates to roughly 120,000 residents.
The prevalence of gambling addiction has some correlation with the types of games and bets gamblers make as well. Researchers have found that British citizens that wager on the spread, fixed-odds betting terminals, or at betting exchanges have the highest rates of addiction. The number of problem gamblers in these three categories is 14.7 per cent, 11.2 per cent, and 9.8 per cent, respectively.
Resources for Gambling Addiction
One way to treat a gambling problem is with medicine. Drugs, such as SSRI paroxetine, nalmefene, and specific types of lithium, can have positive effects. However, most medical professionals err on the side of self-help, peer-support, counseling, or a combination of programs.
Solving a gambling problem often requires a holistic approach. That way, you can receive customizable care that addresses everything from the source of the addiction to the symptoms. One of the best resources for people in the United Kingdom, Scotland, and Wales is GamCare.
GamCare is an independent charity that opened its doors in 1997. The organization is based in London and sees more than two million unique visitors to its site every year. GamCare’s most well-known resource is the National Gambling Helpline.
Those with a gambling problem can call 0808 8020 133 or chat with an advisor 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each call is free and confidential. GamCare representatives receive training so that they can listen, support, and offer assistance to callers based on their situation.
GamCare will provide as much or a little help as necessary. The goal of the helpline is to provide a resource for potential or active gamblers where they can discuss their issues with as much transparency or depth as they want. GamCare does not require names, addresses, or locations, and will only step in if the caller is putting their life at risk or the life of someone else.
There are a handful of other resources available on the GamCare website. That includes the GameChange Course, which is a self-paced evaluation that takes eight weeks to finish. The organization designed the course to parse out emotions and behaviors associated with gambling problems.
Specifically, it borrows techniques from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which requires reflecting and analyzing past actions. You can have a GamCare practitioner walk you through the course to ensure you understand the results. This scenario involves a once-weekly phone call.
There are also self-help resources for anyone who believes they have a potential gambling problem. The information can offer insight and strategies on how to cope with the addiction. Some examples of self-help resources include:
- Building a Support Network worksheet
- Mood Diary
- Boundaries Map
- Stress Checklist
- GamCare Self-Help Workbook
- SMART Goal Planner
- Access, Time and Money worksheet
- My Gambling Diary
- Me Today Planner
- What Will I Gain? worksheet
GamStop is an independent online self-exclusion scheme for gamblers in the United Kingdom. You can self-exclude or block yourself from gambling online for anywhere from six months to five years. The service utilizes personal information to prevent you from logging in or creating new accounts.
You can use the service for free if you create an account on GamStop. Just verify specific information, such as your date of birth, email address, and name. After receiving confirmation, the self-exclusion period can be started at any time.
There is often a slight delay before the self-exclusion takes effect. GamStop typically enacts 24 hours after a request is made. Note the scheme can’t prevent casinos, sportsbooks, or other gambling institutions from sending advertisements or promotions.
GamStop is a good-faith effort to help you mitigate your gambling problem. A majority of casinos in the United Kingdom use the program as a way of assisting patrons in need. Of course, there are two loopholes: ubiquity and platforms.
While most UK gambling operators use GamStop, everyone does not. That is especially true for operators outside of the country, like Curacao, Malta, and Costa Rica. These institutions don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the UK Gambling Commission and offer what is essentially the Wild West of gambling.
Currently, there are a few dozen websites accessible from the UK that don’t comply with GamStop. They will often try to incentivize gamblers with attractive offers, such as free spins and animated gameplay. These sites also tend to lack transparency and options to protect customers.
The second issue is that GamStop is an online-centric platform. If you have an online gambling problem, this service may be the solution, though it does nothing to prevent you from visiting a physical casino or sportsbook. Again, GamStop is a good-faith effort to help gamblers, but it can only do so much.
GamBlock is another type of software that potential or chronic gamblers can purchase to cut off their interactions with gaming sites. After installing the software, the application self-excludes you from any sites that have gambling-related content. Every time you try to access that content, GamBlock will redirect you to the GamBlock homepage.
There are GamBlock products for Windows, Apple, Android, and iOS devices. The company sells subscriptions on a one, two, and three-year basis. Depending on the device, a single lease without discounts will cost anywhere from £49.64 to £154.27.
Regardless of whether you opt for a Gold, Titanium, or Platinum lease, there are some consistent features. For instance, GamBlock will track all gambling activity, block factory resets, and prevent access to gaming sites regardless of government legislation. Some other features include:
- Can’t be circumvented via VPN
- Regularly updates blocked sites
- Software is hidden
- No reliance on the cloud for connection speed
- Doesn’t prevent proxy surfing or onion
GamBlock is a product that works well in principle. Customer reviews, however, have been lukewarm. Two review sites, TrustPilot and Trust Mamma, gave GamBlock 2.5 and 2.0 out of 5 stars, respectively, based on 36 combined reviews.
While each customer has a unique experience with the product, there are a couple of common complaints. One of the most common gripes is that the software blocks sites and content that it shouldn’t. It may interfere with the functionality of any phone, tablet, or desktop it’s installed on, as well. There is also no free trial.
Of course, similar to GamStop, GamBlock only blocks gambling online and not in-person. You may also want to look at a competitor, Gamban. The company offers a two-week free trial of its products at a fraction of the cost. As they offer very similar services to GamStop, Gamban won’t be covered in detail here.
Gamblers Anonymous UK
Offering anonymous support groups across the UK, Gamblers Anonymous provides a safe local space to connect with others fighting gambling addiction. The program utilizes the same 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous and provides a variety of meeting types.
Some meetings are open only for those with gambling addiction. Others allow friends and family to attend as well depending on your needs. There are also women-focused meetings and groups for new members in particular.
The Gamblers Anonymous website is an excellent resource featuring quizzes, information, and even a chatroom and forum if you can’t find a group meeting near you.
Gordon Moody Association
The Gordon Moody Association is a non-profit that provides a free residential gambling program, gambling retreats and counseling, safe houses after program completion, and an online therapy site. Their treatment programs are gender-specific and have limited availability, but their online offerings are open to everyone.
The Bottom Line
Gambling addiction is something that affects millions of people across the world. At its worst, it can derail your life, especially if you don’t have access to treatment or resources. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for gambling addiction, there are several potential aids, including Gamblers Anonymous, GamCare, and GamStop.
Unfortunately, the causes of gambling addiction are not clear cut. It may take a significant amount of time to understand the biological and psychological mechanisms that cause an individual to develop a gambling problem. However, once you recognize the source of the addiction, it becomes easier to take the necessary steps toward treatment—recognizing you have a problem is the first step.