Breaking the cycle – how to spot if gambling is becoming an issue

Safer gambling and how to spot warning signs
Posted on: January 28, 2023 16:00 PST

We all have a set of patterns and routines that we fall into, whether or not we even realize it, and research on the various types of habits could fill several large libraries. For some, it’s getting that first cup of coffee into the bloodstream in the morning. Some people habitually exercise or scroll TikTok or crack knuckles or brush teeth. We all habitually eat and drink water.

Even a healthy habit can become a dangerous compulsion, though, if you become unable to stop yourself from doing it. Alcoholism has less to do with the quantity of alcohol consumed and the level of intoxication than it does with a physiological inability to stop drinking. The same principle holds true for gambling addiction.

Unlike other behaviors, though, compulsive gambling can be especially tricky to spot until a certain threshold of harm is reached. There’s no obvious physical impairment that comes from playing too much roulette, no slurred words or stumbling steps. You can’t get arrested for driving after losing. People who are experiencing harm through gambling tend to look just like everyone else, particularly in a casino environment that’s filled with other gamblers.

So what are some of the warning signs of gambling addiction we should pay attention to? How can we identify a problem in ourselves or our loved ones before it becomes life-altering?

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Finding it hard to stop gambling

In some ways, a lack of self-control is baked into the definition of addiction. But it’s also one of the surest indicators. A gambling addiction is, in its simplest terms, just an inability to control your gambling behavior. And since we’re not talking about an inability to start gambling, we’re obviously dealing with an inability to stop.

The problem from a practical standpoint is that our brains are very good at overestimating our self-control. It’s a form of egotism within our decision-making process wherein we tend to give ourselves more credit for our choices than we deserve. Sure you planned to leave the tables four hours ago, but you chose to prolong the fun. Right? You could have easily left earlier if you stopped having a good time? Maybe.

For obvious reasons, an unwillingness or inability to stop gambling can be way more dangerous when you’re losing money than when you’re winning. Your logical brain may understand that losing is an inevitable part of playing any game (even poker), but is your practical brain able to convince your legs when it’s time to walk away?

Brutal self-honesty is a big asset here, as a truthful examination of your own ability to stop gambling is one of the best ways to spot a problem in its early stages.

Lying about gambling behavior

Speaking of honesty, traits like denial and deception – both outwardly and within – tend to be shared among most forms of addiction too. And that’s certainly true when it comes to gambling.

People suffering through a gambling addiction will commonly lie about the timing and frequency of their play in an attempt to cover it up. They may lie to a significant other about their plans or how much time they’re actually spending gambling. Are you embarrassed to discuss your own gambling behaviors with your friends or family? Do you lie about them effortlessly? That’s a bright red flag.

Lying about gambling can also take the form of concealing the amount of money you’re losing – or even winning. Are you honest with your friends or your partner about how much you’re risking during your gambling sessions? Are you honest with yourself about it? If not, that’s a cause for concern.

Because lying is one of the hallmarks of addiction, you may be able to convince yourself that you’re fully in control of your own behavior. Cognitive dissonance is a whole field of research by itself. Dishonesty in small matters and minimizing “white lies” related to gambling are definitely warning signs of a larger underlying problem. And a sudden recognition that your deceptive behavior is wrong is sometimes the first catalyst for change.

Gambling through financial difficulty

Gambling addiction can be harmful in a few ways, but continuing to gamble in the face of financial hardship is one of its most destructive manifestations.

There’s nothing inherently problematic about losing a significant amount of money gambling. Frankly, some people can afford the entertainment. There is, however, a lot to be worried about when that lost money was supposed to be used for something important – when it’s not disposable. If you’re behind on your financial obligations but still finding the money to gamble, that’s five-alarm dangerous behavior. You’ve stumbled right to the very precipice of trouble.

And that’s not even mentioning the financial difficulty that may be directly caused by gambling. When your gambling losses begin to affect your ability to pay your bills on time or maintain a savings account, that’s a strong sign that an addiction has developed. Even more dangerously, these losses can very quickly compound when gamblers fall into the trap of chasing their bad sessions or betting bigger to try to get back to even. It happens to poker players all the time. How many of us have “taken a shot” at higher stakes at the end of a bad session at our usual stakes?

This is another symptom that may not be apparent to an observer, or even a close friend or family member. The sense of embarrassment that comes with losing too much money is often accompanied by a concerted effort to cover it up. You may even be able to mislead yourself about the severity of your own financial distress.

Other dangerous gambling behaviors

Gambling addiction is a pesky parasite that tends to tailor itself to its host, revealing itself in ways that are specific to each individual. Some other signs of trouble include things like:

  • Gambling for increasingly large stakes
  • Gambling with credit cards or casino markers
  • Borrowing money or selling possessions to gamble
  • Mood/emotions becoming correlated with gambling results
  • Prioritizing gambling ahead of other opportunities/obligations

There are a number of other psychological warning signs to pay attention to, as well, like withdrawal from family or friends and feelings of hopelessness or frustration. Left unchecked, these symptoms can create a powerful downward spiral – and the sooner this is addressed the better. 

If you’re looking for help, free and anonymous support is available 24/7 from professionals in the US via the National Council on Problem Gambling (1-800-522-4700), in the UK via GamCare (0808 8020 133) and in Canada via the Canada Safety Council.

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