gambling recovery programs

The Psychology of Gambling Addiction

Activities like gambling are often glorified in today’s culture. Movies mostly portray gamblers as powerful, wealthy, and satisfied when that can be farther than the truth. In our fast-paced world,  gambling, like other activities, produces instant gratification and becomes increasingly addicting overtime. 

Technology is omnipresent, which makes accessibility to gambling, from casinos to various online gambling apps and websites easier than ever. Today, people can gamble in public or the privacy from their own home on a computer or smartphone. 

Therefore, when people look to either gamble at the casino or online, the act itself is not illegal, which is what makes doing so most appealing, and its’ risky and addictive tendencies easy to justify. 

Psychologists call competition-like activities such as gambling an incentive, which means that people make decisions or adopt certain behaviors because we are often rewarded for it. The more we are awarded for a behavior, the more it motivates someone to continue that activity. The theory of motivation proves this notion. 

Why Do People Gamble?

When people gamble, they intrinsically become motivated, which means they experience the sensation of thrill or excitement. On the opposite side of the spectrum, when people are gambling and extrinsically motivated, they are doing so to escape from stress and to socialize. 

Many people have heard of gambling but do not have any real understanding of how it works, and most importantly, how addictive it can be. There have been extensive studies and evidence-based research on how this phenomenon of gambling affects the psyche, (i.e., how we behave and think).  

Approximately 10 million people throughout the United States have a gambling disorder, and unfortunately, reasons such as stigma (feelings of guilt, stress, discrimination, fear), finances, etc, deter those from receiving the help that they need to recover and become healthy.

At Granite Mountain Behavioral Healthcare, our dedicated staff helps individuals with gambling addictions cope and manage their condition and compulsions through various methods of treatment and therapy. Our philosophy of care and the main goal is always for our patients to successfully recover, free from the control gambling addiction once had on their lives. 

Gambling is Like A Drug

What is Gambling? 

Gambling is defined as the act of risking something of worth, in the hopes of getting something of even greater value and reward in return. 

For example, taking part in a variety of games or competitions, where the main objective is to bet something of monetary value to receive some type of prize or money in return. The outcome or success of gambling is usually luck and chance, otherwise known as probability. 

Just like other addictive behaviors such as drinking alcohol and taking drugs, gambling is an addiction very similar to someone with substance abuse. Just as a person feels the rewarding side effects of euphoria after drinking or taking drugs, a gambler experiences the same feelings after winning a huge game of Blackjack at the casino table or betting large on the winning horse at a major equestrian racing event. 

Reaping the rewards of winning and the feelings a gambler gets when they do so, makes them want to keep betting and playing. In other words, the thrill of competition and winning as a gambler is as powerful as getting high for a drug addict and leaves them wanting more. 

However, there is a difference between people enjoying to gamble once-in-a-while, and compulsively gambling to win what they have lost, and going overboard after they lost their money.

What is a Gambling Addiction? 

Gambling addiction is also known as gambling disorder, pathological and compulsive gambling, or problem gambling. There are various signs of gambling addiction, the main one being reward-driven. 

People who gamble love to chase the high of betting and winning. For people who love to go to the casino or go online to have fun, play games, and socialize, that is not unusual behavior. Truth is, while not all gambling is harmful, the real question is what are the signs that someone’s gambling has become a problem? 

Just like chronic illnesses such as diabetes, addiction is also a disease. Gambling is no different, and this addictive behavior often turns into an obsessive-compulsive action that also completely takes control of a person’s life.  

Those who have a gambling disorder cannot function normally like others who gamble more for fun, because it completely consumes them, disturbing how they function throughout their lives, even making simple everyday tasks difficult to complete. Sadly, those affected by this disease rather lie, cheat, and steal to support their gambling habits. 

People with gambling addictions do not realize that their behaviors are not normal and unhealthy. Compulsive and pathological gambling is habitual, leading to experiences of uncontrollable bouts or urges to engage in forms of gambling. 

In other words, gambling becomes a disorder when someone experiences an uncontrollable urge to keep gambling despite the toll it takes on their life. While it is a choice to engage in these addictive behaviors, people with disorders may want to stop, but they feel they can’t. 

Not only do people with a gambling addiction become preoccupied, but, most importantly, cravings and the high of winning and competition, cause them to behave in unorthodox ways. The main reaction being spending excessive amounts of money, despite the expense of quitting or losing everything that was once really important, such as relationships (friends and family), work, school, hobbies, and fulfilling dreams.

Individuals with more severe cases of gambling addiction, they may also not just experience extreme changes in behavior and mood, but also with their personality, as if they completely took on another identity.

Signs of Gambling Addiction

The major sign that someone has a gambling disorder is seeing repetitive patterns of gambling behaviors that are causing significant problems or some type of distress, personally, mentally, and physically. 

Gamblers who are addicted are unable to control or resist their impulses to bet and competitively spend their money in negligent ways, despite the probability that doing so often leads to severe consequences. 

For those with addiction, the urges to gamble become so severe that the anticipation and pressure to act on this behavior can only be relieved by continuing to gamble more and more. An addiction to gambling is most characterized by the following: 

  • Obsession with gambling
  • Inability to function daily without gambling, causing disruption in all aspects of life (i.e., work, school, relationships, mental health, etc.)
  • Difficulty with controlling impulses to gamble, despite trying to stop the behavior
  • Continues to gamble despite social and mental consequences
  • Lying about the extent of your involvement and extent of gambling behaviors
  • Continuing to gamble despite losing money, and trying to win it back (Chasing losses)
  • Having financial problems due to gambling, or stealing to fund a gambling addiction 

Symptoms of compulsive gambling and addiction are not always very apparent, and people who have a gambling disorder often make it their job to hide their addictive behavior. As a result, this exacerbates the condition, making it harder to diagnose and manage without professional help. 

Risk Factors of Gambling Addiction

There are various reasons why gambling addiction occurs, that range from psychological, environmental, and physiological risk factors. 

According to The Mayo Clinic, these are some of  the following risk factors for developing a gambling problem: 

  • Environment: The environment you are in can majorly affect your decisions. Peer-pressure and being around people who engage in gambling behaviors put people with this disorder at major risk. Therefore, the only way out is to leave that environment with those negative influences. 
  • Age and Gender: Younger people are more susceptible to developing a gambling addiction. Men are seven-and-a-half times more likely to become a problem gambler than women. Although, women who start gamble later in life become addicted much quicker. Patterns for men have recently become similar. 
  • Family History and Genetics: Those with a family history of gambling addiction are more likely to develop one. Genetics plays a major role in addiction, as it can be inherited. 
  • Personality traits: Having a highly competitive nature, being impulsive, restless, easily bored, and being a workaholic can increase one’s risk of developing an addiction to gambling. 
  • Mental disorders: People who compulsively gamble also often have substance abuse issues. Underlying mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, personality disorders, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), are a major risk factor for addiction.

Research conducted by The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), and Georgia State University (GSU) showed that having a family history of gambling addiction increases the risk of other family members, especially children, to become addicted to other substances and drugs (i.e., alcohol, tobacco, opioids, marijuana, etc).  The study also showed that 50 percent of people with a gambling disorder, committed crimes, two-thirds being a direct relation to gambling. 

Types of Gambling Behaviors

There are various types of gambling behaviors that are commonly engaged in alone or in social settings on a sporadic or ongoing basis. The forms of gambling include: 

  • Playing casino games: card games such as Blackjack and Poker, and other machines such as slots, etc. 
  • Bingo
  • Betting money on the Lottery or buying scratchcards
  • Sports or event betting
  • Betting on games of skill
  • Raffles 

There are many different forms of gambling. As mentioned before, gambling, depending to which extent, is not a bad thing. It can be enjoyable, yet risky, so people must be aware and informed before it is too late. 

Psychology Behind Gambling Addiction: From Compulsive to Addictive

Gambling is a psychological game of chance and luck, always affecting a specific outcome, including the way individuals think and make decisions, resulting in action and behavior. 

It is one of those activities that give people that rush of excitement and rewards you for playing and taking a chance. However, sometimes too much of something isn’t always good as they say. Gambling behavior ranges from compulsive to addictive. 

Why is gambling so addictive?

Truth is, there’s just something about the nature of gambling that seems to pull people in. But what is it exactly? Here are the motivators behind the gambling mentality as explained by psychologists. 

Compulsive behavior means having excessive and irresistible urges to perform an action or activity. While a person can have normal bouts of compulsion to engage in various activities, there is such a thing as it becoming too overboard and obsessive. 

Someone who gambles often exhibits these obsessive thoughts and urges defined as compulsions. It is the nature of the way a casino or winning money entices people to keep coming back and repeating these behaviors, ranging from an intense preoccupation with competition and winning, betting, winning money despite losing it, etc. 

It is considered abnormal or an indicator of an underlying disorder when these persistent behaviors become increasingly excessive and consuming overtime, negatively interfering and controlling all aspects of one’s daily lifestyle.  

How does gambling addiction develop?

Dependency and addiction to gambling happen very quickly because as humans, we were taught to love the idea of competition and winning so much, that eventually, that rush turns into an uncontrollable urge to keep gambling despite the toll it can take. 

Before you know it, gambling becomes a person’s full-time job, because it takes control over all facets of their life, and they can’t function normally without it. The reasons why gambling is so addictive include:

  • Gambling creates an illusion of control
  • Betting and winning gives people a natural “high” 
  • The social aspect of gambling
  • Reaping the rewards (money)

The Connection Between Gambling Addiction and Substance Abuse

People may not know it, but according to the American Psychiatric Association, gambling was once classified as a compulsive or impulsive disorder, rather than an addiction. This was due to the main fact, that this act is based on obsessive thoughts and urges known as compulsions. 

However, fast-forward to the present day, within the newest 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), gambling is no longer considered a compulsive disorder, but an addictive/behavioral disorder.

Therefore, the DSM-5’s re-classification of gambling as an addictive disorder through various studies and research within the field of neuroscience has proven the theory that gambling has many of the same characteristics and neural processes as drug and alcohol addiction. 

For someone to receive a confirmed gambling addiction diagnosis, the DSM-5 requires at least four of the following to have occurred in the past year:

  1. Having many unsuccessful attempts to control or stop gambling
  2. Gambling with excessive amounts of money to achieve feelings of euphoria
  3. Frequent and obsessive thoughts about gambling, including experiences in the past, planning the next gambling trip and thinking of ways to make money from gambling. 
  4. Gambling to cope with feelings of depression, anxiety, and distress. 
  5. Even after losing money during gambling, you keep going to get even or recover what you lost. This is referred to as chasing one’s losses. 
  6. Lying to hide gambling obsession
  7. Jeopardizing relationships, career, and other opportunities to gamble 

The behaviors of gambling and substance use disorders (SUD) have a close symbiotic relationship. Both addictive behaviors show that the psychological reasons behind why people are addicted to gambling are because their thought processes are distorted. 

These highly compulsive and ritualized thoughts by gamblers are a major characteristic of addiction. Common thought distortions include:   

  • Attribution:  Many gamblers attribute them to winning to their efforts, not because of random chance and luck. 
  • Magical and positive thinking: Problem gamblers believe that their perception, including hoping or thinking positively will make them win or that their outcomes can be predicted. 
  • Superstitions: Most gamblers or people who engage in some type of sport or competition have some sort of superstition. For example, they have a lucky piece of clothing, bracelet, ways of standing or sitting that they think helps them play better or win. 
  • Distorted beliefs and selective recall: Gamblers like to remember their wins and not talk about their losses. They tend to have distorted beliefs where they justify in their minds that they “almost” won, and because of that, it stimulates them to keep going back for more in hopes that they will win. 
  • Chasing losses: This thought distortion is probably the most common. Problem gamblers believe that the money they have lost due to playing or betting can be won back by continuing to gamble. Chasing one’s losses only causes a person to dive deeper into their gambling addiction. 

Stages of Gambling Addiction 

There are five stages that people with gambling addiction go through. They are the following: 

Stage One: Winning

There are more wins than losses in a gambler’s eyes. During the first stage, people with gambling addiction make it known they know how to win. 

Stage Two: Losing 

During the second stage, the stakes start to get higher, and the gambler believes that all the money that they already lost will be won back. In this stage, people tend to begin lying, borrowing money, and boasting about their gambling. As a result of losing in the end, individuals end up going into a downward spiral towards transitioning into the third stage. 

Stage 3: Desperation

During stage three, this is really where the obsessive thoughts about gambling come into play. This includes getting the money to keep gambling, what their next bet will be, ways to beat the system, and how they will win and avoid losing to come out on top. 

Negative thoughts and behaviors start to increase more frequently and intensely due to desperation. This includes patterns of pathological lying, gambling to cope with pain, increased anger, and blame occurs. 

Towards the end of this stage, credit cards and savings seem to deplete, and therefore, the addicted gambler steals or borrows money, saying they will pay it back, but the more money they receive just feeds their gambling spree. 

Stage 4: Hopelessness

In stage four, problem gamblers feel hopeless, which leaves them contemplating giving up, or worse harming themselves or committing suicide. This also leads them to resort to committing crimes and illegal activities that can cause them to wind up in jail. 

Stage 5: Recovery  

The fifth and final stage is recovery. This is where the gambler finally admits that they have a real problem and wants to overcome it with professional help. This is not always the case, as it is often not easy for people with addictions to ask for help. However, in this stage, often after asking for help the gambler enters a treatment facility including detox, 12-step programs, and counseling. 

Gambling Addiction and Dual Diagnosis

Substance abuse and mental illness are linked and are both major risk factors for addiction. Research has demonstrated that there are high rates of comorbidity between gambling addiction and mental health disorders. This means that the presence of these two chronic diseases or conditions is a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder. 

For example, the once substance that is connected to gambling addiction and mental illness the most is alcohol. Studies throughout the United States have reported that alcohol use disorders (AUD) are said to be the strongest link to addictive disorders such as gambling, which makes sense because enormous amounts of alcohol are served at almost every casino. 

As a result, alcohol addiction is the most frequently diagnosed co-occurring disorder among people with gambling problems. According to The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), about 76 percent of people who were diagnosed with a gambling addiction also had an alcohol use disorder and most likely to have a major depressive disorder. Other common dual diagnoses include:

  • Gambling and depression
  • Gambling and anxiety
  • Gambling and bipolar disorder
  • Gambling and Schizophrenia

Gambling and OCD

Gambling addiction and mental illness such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) share a strong genetic and behavioral link according to research studies by Yale University and Saint Louis University School of Medicine. Since people with OCD exhibit patterns of compulsion and repetitiveness, so do problem gamblers. 

These findings have helped identify these underlying conditions, aiding with more accurate diagnosis and treatment for addictive disorders, substance use disorders, and mental illness. 

People often turn to gamble to cope with symptoms of mental health and to escape any problems or stress they may be feeling. In other words, gamblers seek excitement or action in going to a casino or gambling online, while others are doing so more, as a means to look for an escape or to numb their pain. 

Underlying problems such as drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness cause further complications in the long-run, and the only way to recover is through professional help.

Gambling Addiction Treatment 

It is important to note that people with an addictive disorder such as gambling can be very high-functioning, meaning they can hide their symptoms and function every day like everything is normal. 

Over time, the condition worsens, as signs and symptoms are being masked and hidden and it appears that there is nothing wrong. In reality, addiction to gambling and mental illness are present and must be treated through various methods of comprehensive treatment and therapies.

Addiction affects not only the person going through it but friends and family as well. Treatment for gambling addiction requires inpatient or outpatient treatment, and other programs to achieve optimal recovery, including detox, 12-step programs, and counseling. 

Gambling Addiction Treatment Programs 

Gambling Addiction Therapy 

If you or a loved one are suffering from a gambling addiction, substance use disorder, and/or mental illness, our multidisciplinary team at Granite Mountain is here to help you recover and take back control over your life! No gambling problem has to be permanent. Don’t wait, contact us today!


Article Reviewed by Gregory Struve

Gregory StruveGreg received a Master’s in Counseling from the Adler Graduate School in 2006. He trained at one of the top trauma and anxiety treatment centers in the world until 2008 when he became a faculty member at Grand Canyon University. From 2011 to 2016 he directed a program that leads the field in terms of innovative treatment of anxiety and trauma. During that time he even made several appearances on A&E’s intervention.