Gambling Addiction: What to look for, and how to treat it

Not all addictions develop out of the need to participate in pleasure-seeking behaviors. An addiction can be a person’s way of suppressing or forgetting an emotionally traumatic event or pain.

The “hidden illness” of compulsive gambling is classified by the American Psychological Association as a mental health disorder of impulse control. It is called a “hidden illness” because it is extremely rare and very difficult to detect any physical signs or symptoms. Compulsive gambling becomes worse as time goes on and causes severe psychological, physical, social, and vocational troubles. The good news is that once diagnosed, this addiction can be treated and cured.

Action gambling is one category of compulsive gambling where the addicted individual’s substance of choice is risk-taking. The person becomes addicted to the action and thrill of gambling, much like a heroin addict can become addicted to the process of shooting up. A person who is classified as an action gambler gets pleasure out of being seen as a “winner” by others and will therefore gamble in large groups or with others in order to show that they are able to win. It is most common for men to be classified as action gamblers.

Escape gamblers are those who gamble in order to suppress an emotional pain. Their main goal is not to achieve a rush through the action of gambling, like action gamblers, but to numb their feeling of pain. These gamblers do not like gambling with or around others because of their preference to be along and focus on numbing their pain. Many women fall under the category of escape gamblers.

Unlike most other addictions, teenagers have the highest chance of becoming compulsive gamblers, so it is imperative that they be made aware of the dangers associated with gambling.

Most compulsive gamblers experience a four-phased downward spiral process. These phases are as follows:

Phase one- Winning phase:

The person wins big and becomes very excited at the potential to win even more. Because the gambler is extremely motivated to win, bets are increased during this phase.

Phase two- Losing phase:

The person becomes removed from family and friends, starts lying more, and borrows money to support their gambling. The person brags about all of their winning. If they suffer a loss, they are inclined to immediately return to gambling to win it all back.

Phase three- Desperation phase:

The person becomes even more detached from family and friends, blames others, and feels badly about his or her gambling. This person may resort to committing illegal acts, divorce, suicide, drug abuse or arrest.

Phase four- Hopelessness phase:

The person believes they have hit rock bottom and they feel that there is no way out of their addiction. Up to 20% of individuals in this phase will attempt suicide, while almost all contemplate it.

While the causes of pathological gambling are still unknown, there are three criteria that researchers have determined necessary for a person to develop a gambling addiction: 1) An emotional state that is very difficult to endure, like depression, guilt or helplessness; 2) The ability to self-deceive; 3) Being exposed to gambling where it was seen as valuable. There have been no links to physical or genetic causes proven. One study suggests that compulsive gamblers have lower levels of norepinephrine, and since the stress and arousal caused by gambling helps increase these levels, a compulsive gambler becomes addicted to engaging in this behavior.

Treating a gambling addiction is very similar to treating other, more common addictions. The same approaches are used in treatment by mental health and medical professionals. These may include:

Group Therapy-

Compulsive gamblers are able to get support and advice from others suffering with the same addiction, as well as those who are in recovery. Gamblers Anonymous (GA) is a support group that uses the same 12-step program originally made popular by Alcoholics Anonymous.


This form of cognitive-behavioral therapy helps compulsive gamblers turn their negative, irrational, and unhealthy beliefs into healthy, positive ones.

Inpatient Treatment-

These programs involve the person staying in a hospital type setting, 24 hours, 7 days a week. Along with participating in many different therapeutic activities, patients are provided with a safe, comforting environment where they are given medical and emotional support, supervision and treatment for their disorder.

Residential Treatment-

These programs offer specialized non-hospital-based services, 24 hours, 7 days a week. Staff that is trained in helping treat individuals with behavioral health disorders are available to the compulsive gambler for assistance with whatever they may need.


It is important that an individual seek counseling with a Certified Gambling Counselor who has specific training and education in problem gambling. They must be certified by either a national accreditation organization such as National Gambling Counselor Certification Board- NCGC; American Gambling Counselor Certification Board- CCGC; or American Academy of Health Care Providers in the Addictive Disorders- CAS; OR a state certification organization requiring at least 30 hours of specific training in problem gambling and experience with treating a compulsive gambler.

It is crucial that compulsive gamblers seek help and treatment for their addiction. Many compulsive gamblers develop other problems or addiction, such as alcohol or drug abuse, compulsive shopping, or bulimia. This will make treatment and recovery even more challenging.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.