8 Warning Signs of Gambling Addiction (And How To Get Help)

Written By Sarah Pfennigs on March 4, 2022 - Last Updated on July 22, 2022
Problem gambling

From scratch tickets to sports bets, Iowans have no shortage of gambling options.

If those fun weekend trips to the casino have gotten more frequent and you’re noticing some troubling changes in your life associated with betting, it might be time to review the warning signs of gambling addiction.

According to the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH), problem gambling can be defined as an urge to continue gambling despite the consequences it has on you or the people directly impacted by the behavior.

Pathological gambling disorder can affect people of every:

  • race
  • religion
  • education level
  • or economic status

March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month. It highlights support for you or someone in your life who needs help.

1. You’re preoccupied with gambling.

According to the Mayo Clinic, gambling can stimulate the brain’s reward system similarly to drugs and alcohol. If constant and invasive thoughts of wagering, betting, winning, and losing is distracting you from family, friends, work, and healthy activities, it’s possible you’ve encountered a gambling disorder. Whether you’re fascinated with scratch cards, sports betting, slots, or table games, it doesn’t take long for occasional fun to turn into a destructive habit.

2. You lie about your gambling habits.

Lying to hide an addiction is a telltale symptom of any addiction. Dishonesty can take on all sorts of forms, from rationalization (“I haven’t spent THAT much today”) to justification (“I need to pay off my car loan by the end of the year”) to blatant deceit (“No, I didn’t go to the casino today”). The disastrous impact lying can have on an individual’s mental and physical health, important relationships, and financial well-being is a gambling addiction red flag.

3. You’re gambling more than you can afford to lose.

Someone who gambles casually might be willing to spend some extra cash at the slots for fun, but they’ll stop when their losses exceed what they can afford. But an individual with a gambling disorder can’t control or stop betting — even after they’ve lost large sums of money or valued property. The need to gamble with increasing amounts to achieve the desired level of excitement or “high” can escalate quickly.

Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University who specializes in behavioral addictions, discusses the science of addiction:

“Even when you’re losing while you’re gambling, your body is still producing adrenalin and endorphins. People are buying entertainment.”

Sadly, the cost goes deeper than just being “broke.” Unemployment, severed personal relationships, and severe depression/anxiety can manifest quickly from problem gambling.

4. Gambling negatively impacts your emotional well-being.

Compulsive gambling — like any addiction — is a dysfunctional coping mechanism. It’s a distraction from life’s daily stressors and disappointments. Addictive activity causes the production and release of “feel-good” chemicals — these neurotransmitters distract the brain from thinking about the negative consequences of questionable behavior, so nothing really feels like a problem. But when a gambler isn’t betting, the brain’s reward system comes to a grinding halt — those happy endorphins level out. As a result, a gambling addict might feel irritable or depressed when they’re not wagering.

Dr. David Sack, Chief Medical Officer at Elements Behavioral Health, weighs in on the psychology of addictive gambling.

“It’s the anticipation of the win that produces the greatest dopamine release. It motivates the person to repeatedly pursue this rewarding experience despite serious consequences.”

5. You borrow beyond your means to pay for your habit.

Once compulsive gamblers have burned through the standard ways of borrowing money — a line of credit, bank loans, or a second mortgage — they’ll resort to much riskier options. High-interest credit cards, payday loans, or even illicit loan shark activity isn’t uncommon among those who suffer from gambling disorders. Once desperation seeps in, addicts will go to almost any length to obtain more money — often under the guise that “this time, luck will be on my side” and they’ll make a fortune.

The National Endowment For Financial Education (NEFE) warns of the impact compulsive gambling can have on one’s future.

“The effects on personal finances cannot be overlooked. Resulting money problems — a financial crisis, high or rising debts, the threat of bankruptcy— are what frequently motivate the problem gambler or a loved one to seek help.”

6. You steal to fund your addiction.

Crime is one of the last stops for gambling addicts. Once personal funds and other available means of borrowing money have dried up, compulsive gamblers may find themselves resorting to crime to support their habit. Whether an individual is stealing from family and friends or dabbling in robbery, fraud, or embezzlement, theft of any kind is an obvious sign of addiction. Stealing and cheating often leads to fractured families, job loss, and — in extreme cases — prison. According to the National Institute of Justice:

“Nearly one-third of arrestees identified as pathological gamblers admitted having committed robbery in the previous year. Approximately 13 percent had assaulted someone for money. Pathological gamblers were much more likely to have sold drugs than other arrestees.”

7. Your loved ones think you have a gambling problem.

The people closest to a compulsive gambler know better than anyone how destructive addiction can be on relationships. Problem gamblers will often deny or downplay significant losses or relationship issues when friends and family express concern. This can lead to a major disconnect — loved ones may not understand why the gambler can’t simply stop, and the gambler might become indignant about the intrusion. The continued concern feels like “nagging” to pathological gamblers, leading them to push beloved friends and family away — sometimes permanently.

Furthermore, several studies have identified negative impacts of disordered gambling on the family that include relationship conflict, financial hardship, and domestic violence. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) explains:

“More than a family’s financial health is at stake when gambling problems enter the picture. Dealing with the secrecy and shame of gambling problems can increase familial stress and isolate the gambler and family from outside support. Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are often associated with serious gambling issues. Though difficult, speaking honestly and openly with a therapist knowledgeable about problem gambling can go a long way.”

8. You can’t stop.

In the end, a gambling addiction is defined as an uncontrollable urge to continue gambling despite the toll it takes. It often results in financial ruin, destroyed relationships, unemployment, mental health decline, and criminal charges. Although most pathological gamblers will attempt to cut back or stop destructive behaviors, it’s never about willpower. The key to successful recovery begins with identifying and addressing the underlying issues that have caused the addiction. The next step is getting help – without shame.

Yes, There’s Help

If you or someone you know is struggling with compulsive gambling, there are resources in Iowa to help.

Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH)
Your Life Iowa
National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG)

Photo by Shutterstock Image
Sarah Pfennigs Avatar
Written by
Sarah Pfennigs

Sarah Pfennigs is a corporate copywriter, journalist and blogger based in Arizona. Born and raised in Iowa, Sarah got her undergraduate degree in studio art. Over the last two decades, she’s created digital and print content for gaming, entertainment, culinary, hospitality, insurance, higher education and small community living. When she’s not telling someone else’s story, she’s writing her own by embracing her greatest loves: cooking, music, reading, animals, true crime, red wine, and — of course — her friends and family.

View all posts by Sarah Pfennigs