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Gambling addiction is a condition that affects approximately two to five percent of Americans. A variety of risk factors can predispose someone to compulsive gambling, but the gambling addict’s brain appears to respond to the act of gambling in the same way the alcoholic brain responds to a drink.
Someone with a gambling addiction may have a compulsion for buying lottery tickets, visiting casinos, playing slot machines, betting on sports, or gambling online. The type or frequency of gambling may vary, but a gambling addict will typically be unable to control his behavior and will continue gambling despite negative social, financial, or legal consequences. While research has shown the majority of gambling addicts to be men, the rate of women who are compulsive gamblers is also significantly rising.
A gambling addiction is typically not as easy to hide as other addictions. A gambling addict must have frequent access to casinos or online gambling pools. It’s also important to remember that a compulsive gambler may not gamble frequently, but when he does gamble, he is unable to stop. Several or all of the following behaviors may be present:
With the right treatment methods, gambling addiction can be managed. Unlike someone with a food addiction, a compulsive gambler does not need the object of his addiction to survive. He simply needs to learn how to develop a healthy and balanced relationship with money and develop a program of recovery that assists with impulse control or total abstinence from gambling. In general, gambling addiction is treated with similar methods used for treating other addictions:
An inpatient program at an addiction treatment center can be a good start for a gambling addict. This type of program may be necessary for someone who is not able to avoid casinos or other gambling venues without help.
An outpatient treatment program is a more common option for gambling addicts. In this setting, patients attend classes at a facility but continue to live at home and attend daily activities like work.
Programs like Gamblers Anonymous (GA) may be helpful for addicts who can’t afford other treatments. These 12-step programs follow the same model as Alcoholics Anonymous and can help the addict build a support network of other recovered gambling addicts.
A gambling addict may also benefit from individual therapy. Gambling addiction can often stem from deeper emotional or avoidance issues that need to be dealt with in order to change self-destructive patterns.
In some cases, medication is necessary to help the addict overcome gambling urges. A gambling addiction might develop as a result of another mental health condition, like bipolar disorder. In these cases, the addict must manage the underlying condition in order to help with impulse control.
Like any addiction, compulsive gambling can be difficult to stop. Since it’s also not one of the more “mainstream” addictions, a gambling addict may find it particularly embarrassing to admit he has a problem. However, a comprehensive recovery program and lifestyle changes can help the addict abstain. Most often, it is dealing with the financial repercussions of gambling that is most difficult for addict. In the beginning, it may be necessary for the addict to turn over responsibility for money matters to a spouse or trusted friend. Also, it is usually necessary to avoid places where triggers may occur, such as casinos or bars.
Several organizations have comprehensive information about gambling addiction and treatment options. The following resources may be helpful for addicts or family members:
Written by: Mara Tyler
Medically reviewed : Jennifer Monti, MD, MPH
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