Gambling Problems: Understanding the Factors and Finding Solutions

Written by: Terri-Lynn MacKay, Ph.D., C.Psych. Mental Health Director at ALAViDA Substance Use, a product of LifeSpeak Inc.

Gambling can be an enjoyable pastime, but for some people, it can lead to serious problems affecting their well-being and the well-being of those around them. 

Back in the day, the only way you could gamble was by leaving your house. Today, from the comfort of your phone, tablet, or laptop, you can gamble from anywhere, even while you work, eat, rest, or commute. Now that access has increased, stopping can be harder than ever. 

Understanding the factors that contribute to the development of gambling issues can help find effective solutions. We will explore the various factors linked with gambling problems, including false beliefs that drive addictive behaviors, and outline some harm reduction strategies to support those facing this challenge

Factors Leading to Gambling Problems 

Gambling problems arise due to a complex interplay of factors. Genetics may play a role because we know addictive tendencies run in families. Changes in the neurotransmitter reward system can lead to tolerance, where someone needs to gamble more frequently or with higher stakes to experience the same feeling of excitement. 

People who have had adverse childhood experiences or experienced trauma are at a higher risk of developing addictive behaviors, including gambling. The presence of other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and substance use can increase the susceptibility to developing a gambling problem.  

Certain characteristics like winning at a young age, playing games with immediate rewards, being biologically male, impulsive tendencies, being single, and age (the average age of developing a gambling problem is 40) may also increase the likelihood of developing a gambling problem. It is important to note that while these factors are correlated with gambling problems, they do not cause them

False Beliefs and Cognitive Distortions  

Cognitive distortions, also known as false beliefs, are biases that affect how individuals perceive and process information. Common cognitive distortions in gambling include: 

  • The illusion of control: Overestimating one’s influence over uncontrollable outcomes, such as believing you can predict the winning team in a sporting event. 
  • The gambler’s fallacy: Believing that past losses increase the likelihood of a future win. 
  • Illusory correlations: False associations between events, behaviors, and outcomes, such as believing a specific action guarantees a win. 
  • Personification of gaming devices: Assigning human-like qualities to inanimate objects, such as thinking a strategy change can outwit a machine. 
  • The near-miss fallacy: Believing that being close to a win increases the chances of winning in the next attempt. 

Individuals with gambling problems are more likely to exhibit these cognitive distortions. Recognizing the impact of thoughts on behaviors is a good first step in developing healthier patterns of play.

Diagnosing Gambling Problems 

The diagnosis of a Gambling Disorder is based on specific criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Key indicators include: 

  • Tolerance: Needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money to achieve the same level of excitement.
  • Withdrawal symptoms: Feeling anxious or irritable when attempting to reduce or stop gambling. 
  • Lack of control: Repeated, unsuccessful attempts to stop gambling. 
  • Preoccupation with gambling: Persistent thoughts about past gambling experiences, planning future gambling, or finding ways to secure money for gambling. 
  • Gambling for mood regulation: Gambling to manage emotions rather than for entertainment. 
  • Chasing losses: Trying to recoup gambling losses by continuing to gamble. 
  • Lying about gambling: Concealing gambling involvement from others. 
  • Borrowing money for gambling: Relying on others to cover gambling losses. 
  • Functional impairment: Experiencing problems in personal or professional life due to gambling. 

If you are concerned about your own or someone else’s gambling behavior, seeking help through free online resources, peer support organizations, or a trained professional can help you make a change. You can also find support with ALAViDA Substance Use, a product of LifeSpeak Inc

Harm Reduction Strategies 

You may not be ready to stop gambling, and that is OK. Instead, a harm reduction approach helps you build a toolkit to reduce and/or protect yourself against the negative consequences of this behavior. Consider these strategies: 

  • Setting limits: Establish time and money limits for gambling activities. 
  • Tracking behavior: Create awareness and accountability by monitoring gambling habits over time. 
  • Limiting access to money: Reduce impulsive decisions by limiting access to gambling funds. 
  • Avoiding alcohol: Refrain from consuming alcohol while gambling, as it can impair judgment. 
  • Choosing low-reward activities: Choose gambling activities without immediate rewards (e.g. video lottery terminals). 
  • Changing perspectives: View gambling money as entertainment funds rather than focusing solely on winning. 
  • Aligning with values: Reflect on personal values before gambling to make decisions aligned with those values. 
  • Surfing the urge: Postpone gambling when feeling cravings to reduce impulsive behaviors. 
  • Remembering consequences: Accurately recall the negative outcomes of past gambling experiences.

Supporting Loved Ones  

Supporting someone with a gambling problem can be challenging but it doesn’t have to feel overwhelming. The Community Reinforcement & Family Training (CRAFT) approach is a well-researched method to help support a loved one who is struggling with an addictive behavior. CRAFT strategies include: 

  • Understanding their behavior: Seek to comprehend the function of your loved one’s gambling behavior in managing emotions. 
  • Increasing positive interactions: Engage in positive interactions when they are not gambling and avoid negative interactions during times when they are gambling or planning to gamble. 
  • Positive communication: Learn respectful ways to express needs without blaming. 
  • Allowing natural consequences: Avoid shielding your loved one from gambling-related harms when reasonable.

Supporting someone with a gambling problem is more effective when you also take care of yourself. Set boundaries, seek support from understanding friends or support groups, and consider professional help if needed. 

Understanding the factors that contribute to gambling problems can aid in supporting your loved one. Empathy and compassion play a vital role in helping loved ones overcome challenges with gambling. 

Changing your relationship with gambling doesn’t have to be something you navigate on your own.  

ALAViDA can offer the help you need. Our iCBT modules (internet-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) are one of the primary support options we provide, along with optional group coaching and tracking tools available through the TRAiL platform.  

Ready to learn more? All OTIP members, including RTIP, Home/Auto, and Life Insurance customers have complimentary access to the ALAViDA TRAiL. 

About the author:

Dr. Terri-Lynn Mackay, C.Psych, is the Mental Health Director of ALAViDA Substance Use, a product of LifeSpeak Inc. She leads a care team who provide members with compassionate, non-judgmental, evidence-based care. In her previous roles, Dr. Mackay served as the Director of Operations for the Canadian mental health pandemic response, the Associate Director of Counselling Services at the University of British Columbia, an Associate Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the Provincial Director of Innovation and Partnerships for the Canadian Mental Health Association. Dr. Mackay holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology and a Master’s degree in Behavioural Neuroscience.