Ways to stop gambling

Problem gamblers aren’t just a danger to themselves — the National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that the burglaries, bankruptcies, foreclosures, spouse abuse, child neglect, and even suicide associated with gambling addiction costs the U.S. $6 billion each year.

The severity of the problem, as with all addictions, varies from person to person, and there’s no set pattern for when addicts gamble (daily vs. weekly) or the form they use. Keith Whyte, executive director of the NCPG, says that men usually prefer sports betting and competitive skill-based games, while women are more liable to play bingo or the slot machines.

What really matters, says Berlin, is how often you’re gambling and how you respond when someone tries to stop you. “It’s a spectrum,” she says. “The depth of it is really what we have to gauge. There’s no clear black or white line whether it’s pathological or not. It’s just a matter of degree.”

Gambling your life savings, for example, or experiencing withdrawal symptoms, such as irritability and restlessness when prevented from betting, are good signs that you might have a problem, she says.

If you have concerns about your own or a friend’s gambling habits, here are steps to overcoming a gambling addiction:

1. Admit you have a problem.

As with any addiction, one of the first steps on the road to recovery is admitting that something is wrong in the first place. As few as 3% of gambling addicts actually seek out treatment, and according to Berlin, most addicts don’t get help until very late in the cycle. “In the beginning, they may be in denial,” she says, “but when it gets to a point where it’s clearly a problem, they stop trying to deny it.”
Those who do seek help usually call 24-hour gambling hotlines, which are answered by trained mental health professionals. The NCPG hotline received 317,000 calls last year, says Whyte, and there has been a 10% increase in calls each year for the last decade.

2. Join a support group.

In addition to individual therapy, many gamblers attend self-help groups like Gambler’s Anonymous (GA), a 12-step program that uses many of the same techniques as Alcoholics Anonymous, such as having a sponsor.

According to a GA spokesperson, there are just over 1,700 GA groups in the United States. All of these groups can be located by city and state on their website. Groups also meet in 86 international cities. Spouses and family members of gambling addicts can attend Gam-Anon meetings (available in 40 U.S. states) to learn ways to support their loved one without encouraging his or her problem.

3. Seek professional help.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the standard treatment for gambling addiction, says Berlin. In this type of treatment, a therapist and addict work one-on-one to change the gambler’s destructive thoughts and behaviors. CBT helps addicts develop coping skills and learn cognitive tools to help them resist the desire to gamble, such as practicing waiting for increasingly longer periods of time before submitting to the gambling urge.

“There’s a lot of relapse just like with drug addictions,” she says. “People stop for a while, and then something might trigger them, and they’ll go on a [gambling] binge and relapse.” CBT teaches gamblers how to work through problems in their personal or financial lives rather than use gambling as an escape.

4. Consider medication.

See your doctor for help. Similar to a drug addict who has become desensitized to small amounts of the drug, people who have a gambling addiction often struggle to feel the same “high” that other people get when anticipating winning money, says Berlin. Rather than seeking out a high, she says, problem gamblers “need more just to get the normal high as someone who’s not a pathological gambler.”

Psychiatrists will often prescribe SSRIs, an antidepressant that affects the serotonin system, to amend this imbalance of dopamine. Other drugs that are also prescribed are lithium, which is often used in situations where the person also has bipolar disorder, and opiate antagonists like nalmefene, which diminishes the positive feelings associated with winning.

5. Implement regulatory mechanisms.

Some gamblers who don’t have a current problem but worry about themselves in the future may try to limit the amount of money they gamble with and how often they gamble. They may do so by only bringing cash to a casino or by gambling with designated money so that they don’t dip into funds for other specified expenses (e.g., rent, mortgage, food).

On the other hand, gamblers who are clearly diagnosed as pathological gamblers and are either not in treatment or are suffering from relapse may ask a trusted advisor to control their finances so that they’re literally unable to access cash for gambling.