Signs of Gambling Addiction

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

Gambling, for many, begins as an entertaining pastime—a way to engage in a game of chance, perhaps winning a little extra money or experiencing the thrill of risk. However, for a significant number of individuals, what starts as occasional fun can evolve into a debilitating addiction.

Gambling addiction, also known as compulsive gambling or gambling disorder, is an impulse-control disorder where individuals cannot resist the urge to gamble, even when it has severe negative implications for their personal, financial, and social lives.

So what are the signs of a gambling addiction?

Signs of gambling addiction include increased time spent gambling, restlessness when not gambling, lying about gambling activities, financial issues like debts, strained relationships, emotional distress after gambling, and an inability to control the urge despite negative consequences.

Recgonizing the signs of gambling addiction can lead to timely intervention, preventing the potential devastating consequences that accompany advanced stages of the disorder.

Understanding Gambling Addiction

Gambling addiction, at its core, is a chronic and progressive disorder characterized by an individual’s uncontrollable urge to gamble, irrespective of the negative consequences it may lead to. This compulsion isn’t just about the act of placing a bet—it’s about the entire experience, from the anticipation and thrill of gambling to the inevitable chase of one’s losses.

Definition of Gambling Disorder

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), used by mental health professionals worldwide, classifies gambling disorder as a behavioral addiction. As cited from the American Psychiatric Association, to be diagnosed, individuals must display at least four of the following symptoms within a 12-month period:

  • Need to gamble with increasing amounts to achieve the desired excitement.
  • Restless or irritable when trying to cut down or stop gambling.
  • Repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back on or stop gambling.
  • Frequent thoughts about gambling (such as reliving past gambling or planning future gambling).
  • Often gambling when feeling distressed.
  • After losing money gambling, often returning to get even. (This is referred to as “chasing” one’s losses.)
  • Lying to hide gambling activity.
  • Risking or losing a close relationship, a job, or a school or job opportunity because of gambling.
  • Relying on others to help with money problems caused by gambling

Definition of Recreational Gambling

Here are a few things that define recreational gambling, distinguishing it from problematic gambling:

  • Occasional and done purely for entertainment
  • Setting and sticking to a budget
  • No preoccupation with betting or its outcomes
  • Doesn’t interfere with personal, financial, or professional responsibilities

In essence, while recreational gambling is a controlled and occasional activity, problematic gambling is a persistent behavior that dominates an individual’s life and leads to significant distress or impairment. Understanding this distinction is crucial for individuals and their loved ones to recognize when gambling shifts from being a harmless pastime to a potential addiction.

Signs of a Gambling Addiction

Behavioral Signs

Increased Frequency and Time Spent Gambling: One of the most telling signs is when an individual starts spending more and more time gambling. It’s not just about the occasional bet anymore; they might be preoccupied with planning their next gambling session or find it hard to walk away even after extended periods of play.

Becoming Restless or Irritable When Attempting to Cut Down on Gambling: Just like other addictions, those struggling with gambling can display withdrawal-like symptoms. If they try to reduce their gambling or quit altogether, they might become anxious, restless, or easily agitated.

Prioritizing Gambling Over Other Activities or Responsibilities: Missing important events, neglecting responsibilities, or avoiding social gatherings to gamble are clear indicators that gambling is no longer just a hobby. When gambling becomes the focal point of one’s day or week, pushing aside other vital aspects of life, it’s a cause for concern.

Concealing or Lying About Gambling Activities: Secrecy is a common behavior in many addictions, including gambling. If someone starts being evasive about their whereabouts or is dishonest about the amount they’ve gambled or lost, it suggests they are aware of the problem but might be struggling to control it or are in denial.

Borrowing Money or Stealing to Fund Gambling: When the gambling habit becomes costly, and personal funds run dry, individuals might resort to borrowing money, often under false pretenses. In extreme cases, they might even resort to theft. This desperation for funds to fuel the addiction showcases the depth of the issue.

Recognizing these behavioral signs is critical, as it can help in identifying a potential gambling addiction early on, allowing for timely interventions and support.

Emotional and Psychological Signs

Preoccupation with Gambling: A hallmark sign of gambling addiction is when an individual constantly thinks about gambling. Whether it’s the anticipation of the next bet, replaying past bets in their mind, or strategizing for future games, this obsessive thinking indicates that gambling has become more than just a casual activity.

Anxiety or Depression Related to Gambling Outcomes: The highs of winning and the lows of losing can take an emotional toll. Those with a gambling addiction might experience intense anxiety leading up to or during gambling. Conversely, significant losses can plunge them into periods of deep depression, feeling hopeless or overwhelmed by their situation.

Feelings of Guilt or Remorse After Gambling: After the adrenaline of the bet wears off, many with a gambling addiction are left with feelings of guilt or remorse, especially if they’ve lost significant sums or neglected important responsibilities. This cyclical pattern of betting followed by regret, only to gamble again, can further entrench the addiction.

Using Gambling as a Way to Escape Problems or Negative Feelings: For some, gambling becomes a coping mechanism to escape from personal problems, stress, or negative emotions. Instead of facing and addressing these issues, they immerse themselves in gambling as a temporary distraction. Over time, this can reinforce the habit, making it a primary way they deal with challenges.

Emotional and psychological signs provide deeper insight into the internal struggles of someone with a gambling addiction. Understanding and recognizing these signs can pave the way for empathetic conversations and seeking appropriate interventions.

Financial Signs

Drastic Financial Losses or Debts: One of the most tangible signs of gambling addiction is the impact it has on an individual’s finances. Sustained and significant financial losses or accruing large debts due to persistent gambling are glaring indicators of a problem. Regularly maxing out credit cards, taking out multiple loans, or facing frequent overdrafts can be warning signs.

Relying on Others to Bail Out Financial Troubles Caused by Gambling: When individuals start turning to friends or family to help cover their debts or bail them out of financial predicaments caused by their gambling habits, it underscores the severity of their addiction. This behavior not only affects their financial stability but also strains relationships with loved ones.

Sale or Loss of Personal or Family Property: When the financial strain becomes unbearable, some might resort to selling personal or family belongings to fund their gambling or pay off debts. Losing valuable items, pawning possessions, or even risking essential assets like a home or car can be devastating consequences of unchecked gambling.

The financial implications of a gambling addiction can be some of the most damaging and evident. Monitoring these signs is crucial, as they often have broader consequences, affecting not just the individual but also their family and dependents. Addressing these financial signs early can prevent more significant future hardships and losses.

Signs of Problematic Bets

Here are signs of problematic bets and risky betting behaviors associated with gambling addiction:

Betting to Chase Losses (Trying to Win Back Money Lost): A common trap many gamblers fall into is the urge to win back what they’ve lost. Instead of accepting a loss and moving on, they continue to bet in the hope of recovering their money. This behavior can lead to a rapid escalation in stakes and, consequently, more significant losses. The continuous cycle of “chasing” creates a sense of urgency and desperation, pushing the individual to gamble even more aggressively.

Increasing Bets to Maintain the Thrill: As with many addictive behaviors, there’s often a need for escalation to achieve the same level of satisfaction or thrill. Over time, the initial excitement of small bets might diminish. To counteract this and recapture the initial adrenaline rush, individuals might progressively increase their stakes. This behavior not only increases the financial risk but also deepens the emotional attachment to the outcome of the bet.

Betting Beyond Financial Means: Recreational gamblers bet what they can afford to lose, assuming they will spend the entire amount. If they spend that amount, it will be considered the cost of entertainment. Persons engaged in problem gambling often bet more than they can afford to lose. They might empty savings accounts, max out credit cards, or borrow money to fund their betting.

Loss of Control Despite the Desire to Stop Betting: Perhaps the most indicative sign of an addiction is the loss of control. Individuals might recognize the harm their gambling is causing and sincerely want to quit, yet find themselves unable to resist the urge to gamble. This internal conflict can lead to feelings of guilt, helplessness, and self-loathing, further driving the need to escape through gambling.

Factors that Increase the Risk of Gambling Addiction

Certain factors can predispose an individual to develop a gambling addiction. Recognizing these risk factors can aid in early identification and prevention efforts.

History of Mental Health Disorders: Individuals with certain mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, might be more susceptible to developing a gambling addiction. The act of gambling can sometimes be used as a coping mechanism or escape from the symptoms of these disorders.

Influence of Peers or Family Members Who Gamble: Being surrounded by friends or family members who frequently gamble can normalize the behavior, making an individual more likely to engage in and possibly develop an addiction to gambling. Peer pressure or the desire to fit in can further exacerbate this risk.

Early Exposure to Gambling Activities: Those introduced to gambling at a young age, whether through family traditions, community events, or online platforms, may develop an early familiarity and comfort with the activity. This early exposure can lead to an increased likelihood of regular participation in gambling as they grow older, potentially evolving into a compulsive habit.

Past Traumatic Events: Traumatic events, such as personal assaults, accidents, or the loss of a loved one, can profoundly impact an individual’s emotional and psychological well-being. Some may turn to gambling as a way to distract themselves from the pain or trauma, increasing their risk of developing an addiction.

Being aware of these risk factors can help individuals, families, and professionals take proactive measures. While the presence of these factors doesn’t guarantee that someone will develop a gambling addiction, they do highlight potential vulnerabilities that can be addressed with early education and intervention.


Gambling addiction, like any other addiction, is a complex interplay of emotional, behavioral, and environmental factors. Recognizing its signs early can make a profound difference in an individual’s journey towards recovery. Ignoring or dismissing these signs can lead to more profound financial, social, and psychological consequences.

For those who identify with or notice these signs in a loved one, seeking help is crucial. The stigma surrounding addiction can often deter individuals from reaching out, but it’s essential to remember that gambling addiction is a genuine and treatable disorder. Numerous resources and support systems are available for those struggling. From professional therapists specializing in addiction to community support groups, the help available is extensive and accessible.

Recovery from gambling addiction is not just about abstaining from placing bets. It’s about rebuilding one’s life, mending strained relationships, and regaining a sense of self-worth and direction. With the right support and resources, individuals can navigate their way out of the grip of gambling addiction and move towards a brighter, healthier future.

If you or a loved one are ready to stop gambling, I support clients in Canada and the US through virtual counselling support. If you would like to connect, you can schedule a free 15 minute virtual consultation here.

If you want to learn more about how to gain freedom from this addiction, I highly recommend checking out my article on How to Stop Gambling.

Additional Resources

For those facing gambling addiction or for individuals who are concerned about a loved one, there are various resources available that can provide guidance, support, and treatment. Utilizing these resources can be a pivotal step toward understanding, confronting, and overcoming gambling addiction.


  • National Problem Gambling Helpline: This helpline offers confidential, 24/7 support for individuals and their loved ones. Trained professionals provide information, resources, and referrals.


  • Certified Gambling Addiction Counselors: Many regions have certified counselors specialized in treating gambling addiction. These professionals offer personalized therapy and strategies tailored to an individual’s needs.
  • Outpatient and Inpatient Treatment Centers: For those who need more intensive care, there are facilities dedicated to treating gambling addiction. These centers provide a structured environment, therapy, and tools for recovery.

Peer Support:

  • Gamblers Anonymous: A global organization, Gamblers Anonymous provides a community for individuals looking to overcome their gambling addiction. Meetings are held in various locations and offer a platform for sharing experiences and coping strategies.
  • Family and Friends Support Groups (GamAnon): Understanding the impact gambling addiction can have on loved ones, there are support groups specifically designed for family members and friends. These groups provide a space for sharing experiences, gaining insights, and learning how best to support a loved one.

For anyone grappling with gambling addiction, it’s essential to remember that help is available, and recovery is possible. The first step is often reaching out and accessing the many resources designed to assist those in need.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.

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