Employee & Community Health

Gambling: Has it become a problem?

3/27/2017 by Dr. Craig Sawchuk

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Gambling can take many forms: heading to the casino, playing online poker, betting on fantasy sports teams, buying and trading on the stock market. Are you concerned that gambling has become a problem for a loved one - or yourself? Here are some things to look for if you suspect gambling is no longer a game but a disorder: 

  • Spending increased time, money and attention. Gambling starts to get in the way of other activities like work, family and time with friends. Problem gamblers become preoccupied with it; even when they're not gambling, they're thinking about it. 
  • Having difficulty controlling the urge to gamble. When they're away from it, problem gamblers suffer a form of withdrawal, feeling restless and irritable. They've repeatedly tried to quit, but failed. 
  • Concealing their behavior. They may gamble online late at night or in a conference room at work. Problem gamblers start manipulating shared and separate bank and other financial accounts. 
  • Suffering losses due to gambling. This can include relationships, jobs and money. 
  • Relying on others to bail them out with loans to cover mortgages, bills, car payments, etc. 

There's no one-size-fits-all reason why gambling becomes a problem for some people. Studies have shown that it may run in families and people who are impulsive, easily bored and who enjoy the "rush" may be more susceptible. Problem gamblers experience both strong positive and negative reinforcement from gambling. The positive is the "rush", the reward when they win. The negative is that gambling may reduce or distract from bad feelings such as depression, guilt and stress. This double-barreled reinforcement makes this behavior difficult to change. 

Our environment also makes it challenging to change. There are so many ways to access gambling, such as using cell phones and computers, and so many things to bet on. Gambling often takes place where there's alcohol, which loosens the person's inhibitions even more. 

Can gambling be treated? Yes, but it's a challenging addition. Gamblers may only be seeking treatment, not because they want to change, but because they've suffered major negative consequences, such as the break-up of a marriage, legal problems or job loss due to their gambling. 

The first step is to identify any underlying mood or anxiety disorder and treat it with medication or behavioral therapy. Behavioral techniques that are effective in treating gambling addiction include: 

  • Creating barriers to gambling. This may include software that blocks access to sites, reducing privacy when using devices, providing the spouse or partner with full access to all bank accounts. 
  • Helping the individual redefine what gives them enjoyment. 
  • Working on impulse control. 
  • Incorporating both individual and group sessions. Organizations such as Gamblers Anonymous encourage recovering gamblers to share what has worked for them and to support each other. Creating a community with others brings gambling into the open. 

Like drug or alcohol addition, gamblers may need to make multiple attempts to quit before it sticks. They and their loved ones have to be patient. Treatment also is most effective when it involves the whole family. 

If you're concerned about the gambling of a loved one or yourself, contact your care team to take that first step toward breaking the grip gambling has on your life. 

Dr. Craig Sawchuk is a clinical psychologist in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Integrated Behavioral Health (IBH). He is the co-chair of IBH and co-chair of professionalism within the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at Mayo Clinic's campus in Rochester, Minnesota.