Gambling involves placing something of value at an event whose outcome is uncertain with the aim of winning more than you have invested, whether that be money or another prize. It can be an exciting and fun activity, but it is important to be aware of the risks. For some people, gambling can be a serious addiction that negatively impacts their life. Fortunately, there are ways to manage your gambling and protect yourself from becoming addicted. Using strategies to increase your chances of winning, playing games with the least house edge, and knowing when to walk away are some ways to minimize the risk of becoming a problem gambler.
In the past, the psychiatric community generally regarded pathological gambling as more of a compulsion than an addiction—a behavior primarily motivated by the need to relieve anxiety rather than a craving for intense pleasure. In fact, the psychiatric manual previously classified it as an impulse control disorder—a fuzzy label for a group of somewhat related illnesses that also included kleptomania (stealing), pyromania (setting things on fire) and trichotillomania (hairpulling). But in a move hailed by many in the field, the American Psychiatric Association has officially moved pathological gambling into the addictions chapter of the latest edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which was published this past May.
While researchers are still trying to understand what causes a person to become a pathological gambler, there are some common themes that appear across studies. One is the strong association between mood disorders and gambling, especially in the case of depression. In some cases, depressive symptoms are found to precede the onset of pathological gambling, while in others they follow it.
Other research has shown that a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and group support programs, such as those modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, can help people overcome their gambling problems. Specifically, such treatments teach participants to recognize and challenge irrational beliefs, such as the belief that a streak of losses is due to a near miss—two out of three cherries on a slot machine—and will soon turn into a win.
When it comes to protecting yourself from problematic gambling, a good first step is to set time limits and stick to them. If you’re in a casino, try not to down too many free cocktails and don’t chase your losses, thinking that you’ll get lucky again and recoup your loses. Instead, treat any money you do win as a bonus and only spend what you can afford to lose. Also, never gamble when you’re depressed or tired—that’s a recipe for disaster. In addition, stay in contact with friends and family so you have people to lean on when times are tough. Also, consider joining a peer support program like Gamblers Anonymous, which can offer valuable guidance to recovering gamblers. And of course, don’t gamble while you’re on medication for a mood disorder. That’s a sure way to end up losing more than you’ll ever win.