Gambling disorder is a chronic mental health condition that can affect many aspects of your life. It’s a behavioral addiction that happens when you lose control over your gambling behaviors. It’s crucial to talk to a healthcare provider or mental health professional as soon as you notice problematic gambling behaviors. Talk therapy can help treat it.
Gambling disorder (gambling addiction) is a mental health condition characterized by recurrent, maladaptive gambling behavior that causes you clinical stress. It causes major problems with your relationships, work or school, and/or finances.
Gambling refers to an activity in which a person risks something valuable to themselves to win something in return. There are many types of gambling, but common forms include betting in casinos or on sporting events. Not everyone who gambles develops gambling disorder.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) considers gambling disorder as a behavioral addiction. In fact, it’s currently the only behavioral addiction the DSM-5 recognizes. In certain ways, gambling disorder resembles substance use disorder. They both change your brain chemistry and can have features of withdrawal and tolerance.
Gambling disorder is sometimes called compulsive gambling or problem gambling.
Gambling disorder affects adolescents and adults. In the United States, gambling is illegal for adolescents under the age of 18, but it’s still relatively common for that age group. Gambling at a young age is also a risk factor for developing gambling disorder.
Researchers estimate that gambling disorder affects 2% to 4% of the U.S. population. But this may be inaccurate because not everyone with gambling disorder receives a diagnosis or professional treatment.
A significant sign of gambling addiction is when gambling interferes with major areas of your life, like your relationships, work and financial stability.
More specific signs of gambling addiction include:
There’s no single cause of gambling disorder or other addictions — it’s a very complex condition. Some of the factors that contribute to gambling disorder include:
Gambling affects the reward center of your brain. Humans are biologically motivated to seek rewards. Often, these rewards come from healthy behaviors. When you spend time with a loved one or eat a delicious meal, your body releases a chemical called dopamine, which makes you feel pleasure. It becomes a cycle: You seek out these experiences because they reward you with good feelings.
Gambling can send massive surges of dopamine through your brain, too. But instead of motivating you to do the things you need to do to survive (like eat and work), such massive dopamine levels can have damaging effects on your thoughts, feelings and behavior.
This can create an unhealthy drive to seek more pleasure from gambling and less from healthier activities. Over time, gambling changes your brain chemistry, and you become desensitized to its effects. You then need to gamble more to produce the same effect.
Gambling disorder tends to run in families, which suggests a genetic link. Studies on identical twins also show that genetic factors may contribute more to the risk of developing gambling disorder than environmental factors (like adverse childhood experiences).
Several studies show that people with gambling disorder are more likely to have extremes of the following personality traits or behaviors:
In addition, people with gambling disorder are more likely to have certain coexisting mental health conditions, including:
Some people may have these conditions before they develop gambling disorder, while others may later develop them.
To diagnose gambling disorder, your healthcare provider may refer you to a psychologist or an addiction counselor. Your provider will ask you (and possibly your loved ones) questions about your patterns of gambling.
Mental health professionals use criteria listed in the DSM-5 to diagnose gambling disorder. You have to have at least four signs of gambling disorder during the past year to receive a diagnosis.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently doesn’t approve any medications to help treat gambling disorder. But several types of psychotherapy can help.
Psychotherapy is a term for a variety of treatment techniques that aim to help a person identify and change unhealthy emotions, thoughts and behaviors. It takes place with a trained, licensed mental health professional, such as a psychologist or clinical social worker.
Therapy can help you:
Specific types of therapy for gambling disorder include:
Gambling affects people in different ways. And there are several types of gambling. Certain approaches may work better for different people. It may take time to find the right strategy or therapist for you. But it’s important to keep trying.
There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of gambling disorder, including:
The prognosis (outlook) for gambling disorder depends on a few factors, like:
Unfortunately, less than 10% of people with gambling disorder seek professional treatment. Many try to fix it themselves. Know that therapy with a mental health professional can help manage the condition.
In comparison with the general population, people with gambling disorder have an increased risk for suicide. One study of people who sought treatment reported that 32% had suicidal ideation and 17% had attempted suicide at least once.
If you’re having thoughts of suicide, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. Someone will be available to talk with you 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Aside from seeking professional help, here are some steps you can take to manage gambling disorder:
It can be very challenging and stressful to learn that someone you love has gambling disorder. Here are some tips to help your loved one and yourself:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
You may feel shame about having issues with gambling or maybe you think you can fix it yourself. Know that it’s OK to admit you have problems with gambling. The sooner you get help, the better. Talk to your healthcare provider or a mental health professional if you’re concerned about your gambling behaviors. They’re available to help and support you.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/07/2023.
Learn more about our editorial process.