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Gambling is very normalized in our culture, with approximately 85% of American adults having gambled at least once in their lives, and 65% within the last year. Although many people can gamble without becoming addicted, there are many risks involved when it comes to wagering any amount of money.

In order to help a family member who may be struggling with gambling, or to avoid developing a compulsive gambling disorder yourself, it’s important to be aware of the signs of each stage of a gambling disorder.


How a Gambling Addiction Develops

In many cases, gambling starts out as casual entertainment or as a way to unwind after a long day; but it can also be used as a distraction from unpleasant situations or emotions. Gambling becomes a problem when it becomes something that is difficult to control and begins to disrupt your life or damage your mental health. 

A gambling addiction can develop in a variety of ways. For example, some people get roped into gambling through the offer of free play on online gambling sites. Since there is initially no money involved, it seems like a harmless opportunity. However, this seemingly harmless offer can be the very thing that leads to the first stage of a gambling disorder. 

The Winning Stage

The main way a person gets hooked on gambling is by experiencing a big win, or a series of wins. Wins are common in games that are free to play, because the house does not lose any money if the person wins. These games allow the gambler to win more often in order to boost their confidence so they believe that they can win just as much when real money is involved. 

Once they experience a winning streak, the gambler may believe that they have a talent or skill for gambling, and that they will continue to win. This stage is usually short-lived, since winning is not based on skill, and despite the illusion of being in control, the odds are not in favor of the gambler. 


man excited about winning money on the internet


The Losing Stage

After the gambler experiences the winning stage, it is inevitable for the losing stage to follow. Since they have already experienced how it feels to win, the gambler will have a much harder time quitting after losing a large sum of money. 

During the losing phase, there may be some instances of small wins that keep the gambler’s hope of winning alive, but the amount gained is usually very minimal compared to the amount lost.

For some people, a significant loss might be a sign to stop gambling, but a compulsive gambler believes that the next big win is right around the corner. Thinking this way can do immense damage to the gambler, and can make it so that gambling is not even fun anymore.  

At this point, the gambler starts to become obsessed with gambling, they may start borrowing money, and lying to loved ones about where they are spending their time and money.


The Desperation Stage

Gamblers chase losses when they are desperate to win some of their money back. They may resort to the extreme of stealing and lying to their loved ones. They are often ridden with shame and guilt, and may be experiencing relationship woes. 

However, despite recognizing their inability to stop gambling, they feel hopeless and unable to control their gambling. If a gambler gets to this stage, it is common for them to develop a substance use disorder, and suffer from extreme depression and/or anxiety. 


How to Stop Chasing Losses

  • Realize that the house always has the edge. Although they may give you the illusion that you are in control of the game you’re playing - you are not in control, because the outcome is not dependent on your skill.

  • Don’t gamble more than you can afford to lose. Value your hard-earned money by setting a budget and sticking to it.

  • Know that you don’t have to prove yourself to anyone. You are not a failure because you can’t win back your losses. Remember, these games are designed to keep you hooked and they try to convince you that winning big is feasible, when in reality, it’s very highly unlikely.


Recovering From a Gambling Disorder

Recovery from a gambling disorder is not easy, but it is absolutely possible. Finding a community of like-minded people through organizations such as Gamblers Anonymous is a good first step to take when seeking help for a gambling disorder.

Attending individual cognitive behavioral therapy as soon as possible is also highly beneficial for identifying and working on the root cause of the gambling disorder. 

If the gambler has reached the desperation stage, then attending a residential treatment center will be the most effective way of successfully treating their gambling disorder.

A residential treatment center is a great opportunity to heal in a new environment, away from the stresses of everyday life, and focus solely on recovery. 

At Algamus, we have 30 years of experience treating all kinds of gambling disorders. No matter how far gone you may think you are, there is hope. If you have concerns about yourself or a loved one’s gambling, reach out to our gambling counselors, and we can help you navigate this difficult situation. 

Topics: Gambling Addiction, Treatment, Recovery

Rick Benson

Written by Rick Benson

Rick founded Algamus Recovery Centers in 1992. A Cornell University graduate, Rick is an Internationally Certified Gambling Counselor (ICGC-II) and a Canadian Problem Gambling Counselor (CPGC). Algamus and Rick were featured on the very first episode of Intervention on the A&E channel.