Perhaps your idea of a perfect weekend is flying to Las Vegas, picking out the casino games with the best odds, and allotting yourself a set amount of money to gamble. Maybe this is how you choose to spend the entertainment money in your budget, or you’re meeting your friends for a weekend getaway. Whatever the case, gambling can start out as a perfectly controlled activity. However, it can quickly become an issue for your well-being — both in relationships and financially speaking — if you’re not watching for warning signs. Unfortunately, having a gambling problem isn’t totally abnormal in the United States.
Like many addictive behaviors, the problem with gambling addiction isn’t the gambling itself — it’s how an individual responds to that activity. In fact, someone with a gambling addiction experiences the same effects in the brain as someone who is an alcoholic, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling. “The gambling alters the person’s mood and the gambler keeps repeating the behavior attempting to achieve that same effect. But just as tolerance develops to drugs or alcohol, the gambler finds that it takes more and more of the gambling experience to achieve the same emotional effect as before,” the council explains.
While you might not think having a gambling problem is much to worry about, the American Psychiatric Association lists pathological (or compulsive) gambling as an addictive disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, one of the key sources health professionals rely on for mental diagnoses. In addition to the toll it can take on relationships, a gambling addiction can also greatly impact your budget and financial picture.
Gambling’s effect on finances
According to the National Council on Problem Gambling in a paper titled Problem Gamblers and Their Finances, someone who becomes addicted to gambling will go through three main stages: the winning phase (when they discover gambling is exciting); the losing phase (when their losses begin to catch up with them); and the desperation phase (when the gambler finds themselves in dire financial straits in order to keep funding their compulsion to gamble). As those stages progress, the gambler’s perception of money mutates.
Money is no longer a means for achieving goals, having financial freedom, or for establishing security. “Instead, money to the gambler has only one value: to enable the gambler to keep gambling, to stay ‘in action,'” the paper explains. “This corrupted view of the value of money is why problem gamblers may do anything to obtain money to keep gambling — lying, borrowing, even stealing.” This statement, of course, assumes that most compulsive gamblers have already begun maxing out their budgets and their credit cards, along with draining their bank balances, to support their addiction — behaviors that are the norm for people ensnared in an addictive cycle.
Unfortunately, even compulsive gamblers who are able to pay their bills will still struggle with the addition itself — the issue isn’t just a money problem. “Problem gambling is an emotional problem that has financial consequences. If you pay all of a problem gambler’s debts, the person will still be a problem gambler,” the council explains on its FAQ page.
The warning signs of a gambling addiction
Of course, most people won’t take a trip to Vegas and come home ready to offer their homes as collateral to support their new gambling habit. But for some, the pastime can become an obsession that consumes their thoughts and their income. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling’s FAQ page, about 2 million Americans would qualify as pathological gamblers each year. Another 4 to 6 million people are considered “problem gamblers,” which means they’re not fully addicted, but display one or more of the symptoms and are at risk for becoming compulsive gamblers.
The council provides several warning signs of compulsive gambling. If you or a loved one display these signs, it might be time to seek guidance from a health professional.
- You’re constantly thinking about gambling
- You find yourself needing to bet more money, and bet more often, to get the same thrill you did when you started gambling
- You experience restlessness or irritability when you try to stop gambling
- You have begun “chasing” losses in attempts to recoup your money
- Despite mounting financial woes and even perhaps struggles with loved ones, you can’t stop the urge to continue gambling
The Mayo Clinic includes some other warning signs. Again, these symptoms could describe an addiction that needs treatment with a medical health professional.
- You get a thrill from taking big gambling risks
- You relive past gambling experiences
- You conceal or lie about gambling
- You feel guilt or remorse after gambling
- You borrow money or steal it in order to keep funding your gambling habit
If you are experiencing some of these symptoms or you believe a loved one is, the National Council for Problem Gambling provides a 24-hour help line at 1-800-522-4700. You can also check out the council’s list of help resources in each state, so you can find local assistance as well.