Is Compulsive Gambling a Disorder?

Gambling while on vacation or buying the occasional lottery ticket poses little to no threat to a person’s overall quality of life. When done on a recreational basis, gambling can be a fun activity. Compulsive gambling, however, takes gambling activities to a whole other level.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, three percent of Americans will experience job loss, broken families, debt and legal problems as result of compulsive gambling behaviors. In effect, the word “compulsive” best depicts the disorder aspect of compulsive gambling.

More oftentimes than not, compulsive behaviors result from some form of obsession that overwhelms a person’s ability to control or manage the behavior. These characteristics most resemble addiction-type behaviors without the drug or alcohol component. Not unlike drug/alcohol addictions, compulsive gambling behaviors trigger physiological changes and behavioral changes, both of which have a noticeable impact on a person’s everyday quality of life.

Process-Based Addictions

Addiction describes a disorder characterized by a loss of control, so compulsive behavior becomes a key component within any form of addiction. Process-based addictions involve activities where a person loses control over his or her ability to walk away from further engagement. Compulsive gambling behaviors fall within the process-based addiction category.

Much like addictions to alcohol and drugs, a person may start out gambling on an infrequent basis as a form of recreation. For people with addiction tendencies, the fun or thrill of engaging in the activity becomes a force all its own, similar to how a drug “high” drives addicts to keep using.

Ultimately, someone with a compulsive gambling (addiction) disorder will exhibit the following characteristics –

  • Spending increasing amounts of time gambling
  • Disregard for negative consequences brought on by gambling behavior
  • An inability to limit or stop gambling behavior
  • Thinking about and anticipating the next time he or she gambles
  • An emotional tie with the activity

Gambling Effects in the Brain

gambling problem

Someone who cannot control their gambling may be said to have a gambling disorder.

For people addicted to gambling, the act of gambling has become an obsession. Obsessions, in general, trigger certain emotional responses, which play a central role in perpetuating this condition.

Likewise, compulsive gamblers experience a “rush” or “high” that produces chemical changes in the brain, much like a drug or alcohol “high.” According to Scientific American, these chemical changes affect the same neurotransmitter chemicals that regulate emotions, learning, cognitive functions and motivation.

Over time, these chemical changes start to “rewire” how the brain works and eventually alter a person’s motivations, thoughts and behaviors. In effect, the more a person engages in gambling the more out of balance brain chemical processes become.

Symptoms of Compulsive Gambling

Like drug and alcohol abuse disorders, a gambling disorder can wreak havoc in most every area of a person’s life. Symptoms of compulsive gambling disorder include –

  • Decline in personal appearance and/or hygiene
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Sleep problems
  • Risk-taking
  • Financial difficulties
  • Changes in appetite
  • Legal problems
  • Relationship conflicts
  • Problems at work

Not surprisingly, these same symptoms can result from drug/alcohol addictions. As with any form of addiction, a person’s gambling behaviors will only get worse unless he or she gets needed treatment help.


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