How to Recognize a Gambling Problem

Gambling involves risking something of value, usually money, on an event with a random outcome and the chance of winning a prize. The activity can occur in many different settings, including casinos, racetracks, sporting events and even on the Internet. In the United States, more than half of all adults engage in gambling at some point in their lives. For some, the activity can be enjoyable and provide a source of entertainment and relaxation. However, for others the behavior can be harmful and cause significant problems. In some cases, it can harm family, work and social relationships, lead to impulsive behaviors and serious financial difficulties, and even result in suicide.

Some people find themselves in a cycle of gambling and debt, in which they bet more and more money in the hope of recovering their losses. This type of behavior can be difficult to recognize as a problem, particularly when the person is part of a culture that values gambling. In addition, some people may not be able to distinguish between different types of gambling activities, such as a game of bingo or poker versus a casino or lottery game.

People who have a gambling problem often experience one or more of the following symptoms:

Become preoccupied with thoughts about gambling (e.g., replaying past gambling experiences, estimating or planning future wagers, thinking about ways to get money to gamble). Frequently loses control when gambling and becomes restless or irritable when attempting to reduce or stop gambling. Frequently spends time in a state of denial about their gambling problem or lies to conceal the extent of their involvement in gambling. Often returns to gambling after losing money in the hopes of getting it back (“chasing” losses). Often tries to justify their gambling behavior by claiming it is just “a little fun” or a way to relieve boredom.

In some cases, people develop a problem with gambling because of biological or environmental factors. Biological factors include the presence of certain genes and variations in brain regions that regulate reward and impulse control. Environmental factors may include the availability of gambling opportunities and the influence of culture on thought patterns and beliefs about gambling.

Regardless of the cause, it is important to address a gambling problem as soon as it is recognized. There are many treatment options available, including therapy and support groups. Therapists can help patients identify underlying issues, learn healthier coping skills and develop healthy ways to manage stress and depression. Support groups, such as Gamblers Anonymous, can provide guidance and encouragement from former gamblers who have successfully overcome their addictions. In addition, financial counseling can help people establish budgets and credit management strategies to prevent relapse. Family therapy and marriage, career and credit counseling can also be useful in addressing issues related to gambling.

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