Gambling is often framed as being a harmless form of entertainment, whether it’s betting on sports, playing slot machines, or buying lottery tickets. The normalization and accessibility of gambling is greatly contributing to the rise in compulsive gambling.
Many compulsive gamblers know that it’s not a harmless hobby. In fact, gambling has serious effects on your mental health. One study found biopsychosocial effects caused by pathological gambling, leading to direct triggers and worsening depression, anxiety, obsessive disorders, and personality disorders.
Gambling and Mental Health Disorders
If you already have a mental health disorder like depression or anxiety, compulsive gambling can worsen your symptoms. Compulsive gambling also causes mental health disorders that will only drive you to gamble more. If you are experiencing both a gambling disorder and a mental health disorder, this is known as a dual diagnosis and these disorders need to be treated simultaneously for a successful recovery.
The Link Between Gambling and Depression
If you’re feeling depressed, the thought of winning some money may sound like all you need to feel better. According to Timothy W. Fong, MD, author of “The Biopsychosocial Consequences of Pathological Gambling,” gambling exacerbates depression, stress-related conditions like hypertension, insomnia, anxiety disorders, and substance use issues.
Gambling activates the brain’s reward system in a similar way that a drug does. Even when a gambler is losing, their body is still producing adrenaline and endorphins, which encourages them to continue gambling.
Over time, the gambler develops a tolerance to gambling, it becomes less rewarding, and they may find that they need to take bigger gambling risks in order to feel the same excitement as they did when they first started gambling. In other words, the brain becomes conditioned and yearns for more dopamine to trigger its reward system.
How Gambling Affects Mood
We all have a natural setpoint for our mood which can shift slightly throughout the day. When you gamble and experience pleasure, your mood setpoint goes up temporarily, and returns to normal afterwards. However, when gambling becomes compulsive, your mood setpoint can go down, even when you’re not gambling.
As a result, the gambler may experience depression. The depression tends to heighten if they consistently gamble more than they mean to, and end up in financial turmoil, or if they try to quit and are unsuccessful. Ultimately, gambling consumes their mind, and they may feel unable to find joy and excitement in any other activity. People with a compulsive gambling disorder are also more likely to experience suicidal thoughts, which is why it’s important to treat a gambling disorder with the same urgency as you would treat any other medical condition.
Gambling and Anxiety
Many people will gamble as a way to distract themselves from their anxiety, or channel their anxiety into the excitement they get from gambling. Up to 34% of problem gamblers also experience extreme anxiety in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Compulsive gamblers tend to hide their gambling from others. They start lying and making excuses for where they are going or how they are spending their money. Being the only one who knows about your own gambling problem can be very anxiety inducing. What if someone finds out? What if my relationships suffer because of my gambling?
Instead of turning to gambling, learn how to manage your anxiety symptoms in a healthy way. Practice self-care through breathing exercises, journaling, or relaxing with a low-intensity TV show.
Gambling and Stress
When you are stressed, gambling might feel like a relief and a distraction, but gambling can cause more stress in a variety of ways. It will likely cause financial stress if you end up gambling away more money than you intended, and you start racking up debt. This could also lead to stresses on your relationships, and cause a loss of trust with your family and friends.
Gambling is not an effective coping mechanism. If you are looking for something to “take the edge off” after a long day, try getting some fresh air and going for a 30 minute walk around your neighborhood. It may not seem like it would be relaxing, but exercise is one of the best natural stress-reducers.
How to Help a Loved One
Be aware of the signs of compulsive gambling, and the symptoms of depression and anxiety. A gambling problem can be difficult to spot, especially when they are gambling primarily online. If you see any of these things amplified in your loved one, don’t try to solve the problem on your own. Get involved in a support group, and seek professional help for your loved one.
Know that your loved one is not trying to hurt you by continuing to gamble, but lending them money or paying off their debt will not curb their gambling problem, no matter what they tell you.
Most importantly, don’t give up on them. If you tried to help your loved one who was medically ill once, and they fell out of remission, wouldn’t you try to help them get back into remission? Helping them recover from a gambling disorder should be no different.
Where to Get Help
It’s important to remember that if quitting was easy, everyone would do it, and continuing to gamble is not a moral failure on your part. What you can do is get to the root of whatever it is that drives you to gamble, whether it be financial stress, boredom, depression, anxiety, or something else.
Don’t try to solve your own or your loved one’s gambling disorder all by yourself. Confide in a friend or family member so that you don’t have to carry this burden alone, and consider seeking professional treatment.
At Algamus, we have nearly a one-to-one staff to patient ratio, many of our staff members are in recovery from a gambling disorder, and have been through what you’re going through. Reach out to our counselors if you believe you have a gambling problem, and are ready to commit to making a significant change in your life by leaving gambling behind for good.