Gambling Disorders

Gambling is an activity where a person puts something of value at risk on an event that is determined at least in part by chance. It is not uncommon for people to engage in gambling without having a problem; however, some individuals are predisposed to develop a gambling disorder that negatively affects their lives and relationships. In the United States, it is estimated that 1 percent of adults meet the diagnostic criteria for a severe gambling problem. This disorder can negatively impact a person’s physical or mental health, work performance, school or family life, finances and personal relationships.

The diagnosis of a gambling disorder is based on 10 criteria that are grouped into three categories: damage or disruption, loss of control and dependence. A gambler may be able to stop gambling, but it’s often difficult for him or her to do so. The underlying causes of problem gambling can include poor financial management skills, diminished mathematical abilities, emotional distress or cognitive distortions. It can also be caused by a history of substance abuse or an untreated mood disorder such as anxiety or depression.

Symptoms of problem gambling include downplaying or lying to loved ones about gambling behavior, relying on others to fund your betting or replace money you’ve lost, and continuing to gamble even when it negatively impacts your work, education and personal relationships. Personality traits, coexisting mental health conditions and cultural beliefs can also contribute to problem gambling behaviors.

When you gamble, the reward center of your brain is stimulated. This can cause you to feel good when you win, but bad when you lose. It can also lead to compulsive behaviors such as over-gambling and spending more than you can afford.

Fortunately, there are ways to prevent problems with gambling. It’s important to build healthy coping mechanisms, like strengthening your support network and finding other activities that make you happy. You can also seek treatment if you’re struggling with addiction. There are several different types of psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy that can help you manage your thoughts, emotions and behaviors around gambling. You can also participate in a peer support group, such as Gamblers Anonymous, which is modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous. You can also get help from a therapist who specializes in addiction. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved any medications to treat gambling disorder, but there are a variety of psychotherapy techniques that can help you overcome your problem. It might take some time to find the right therapist or strategy for you, but it’s worth it. Taking steps to manage your gambling behavior can help you live a happier, healthier and more productive life. – Dr. Karen Reynolds, MD, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychiatrist in private practice. She specializes in gambling disorders and other addictions. Contact her at