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Gambling: Habit, Compulsion or Addiction?

There are many forms of gambling and all of them can provide a brief feeling of euphoria. Some have described gambling as giving them a “rush or high”. When you gamble, you risk something valuable, such as money, to take a chance on an uncertain activity. You do this with the hopes of winning even more than what you risked. A good example is when you play the slot machines or lottery tickets. You spend a dollar on a ticket or put a dollar in a slot machine. Your hope is that the ticket or slot machine you play will produce a win that gives you a great deal more money than the dollar you spent to play. Another example is betting on sports games. You have no idea what the outcome of the game will be but you place a monetary bet in hopes your team will win and provide you with more money than you bet.

Activities such as these can be fun when played for recreation on occasion. Unfortunately, there are times when gambling behaviors can create problems, not fun. Gambling can become a habit, a compulsion and even an addiction. Any of these issues can be treated and overcoming a gambling problem is possible.

The Brain and Gambling

Gambling is sometimes compared to drug use because they both affect the brain in similar ways. Researchers have put gambling addiction and substance addiction in the same category of behavioral addictions due to their similarity. They both trigger the brain to release the chemical dopamine. The problem is that the brain releases about ten times the regular amount of dopamine when someone is gambling and this gives you that feelings of reward, euphoria and the desire to repeat that action. Your brain starts to tell the rest of your body that you need to gamble and as often as possible to continue feeling rewarded. You then begin seeking out the activities that create the euphoric feeling and before you know it, you have developed an issue with gambling. Some people build a gambling habit, others act on compulsions and then some become addicted to gambling.

Gambling Habit

A habit is a behavior that you do on a regular or routine basis. If you have a habit, you are gambling for reasons other than trying to numb your feelings or mask emotions. An example of a habit is if you stop by a convenience store every Thursday to get gas for your vehicle and purchase a lottery ticket in hopes you will win the Mega Millions. Occasionally you miss your Thursday routine due to other obligations but this doesn’t bother you because you know you can get back into your routine or habit the next week.

A habit is simply a part of your daily or weekly routine that does not typically have negative impacts on your life and doesn’t interfere with your life or lifestyle. Habits can be stopped if you become aware that it is a problem and there is a need for change. This differs from compulsions.

Gambling Compulsion

You can be seen as having compulsive gambling issues if you are unable to stop or change your behaviors on your own. Even when you are aware your behavior is a problem, you feel it is not possible to stop.

If you are a compulsive gambler, then you know that the act of gambling can relieve a symptom of anxiety and in turn, this anxiety motivates you to continue gambling. With compulsions, gambling becomes a ritualistic and repetitive action to eliminate anxiety. You may even associate gambling with anxiety relief and then it becomes a necessity for you to carry out your gambling behaviors.

Compulsive gamblers have trouble with controlling impulses and may find it hard to stop gambling even when they are aware of this and want to stop. This sounds like addiction, but there is a slight difference.

Gambling Addiction

Habits and compulsions are parts of addiction. The difference that separates them is that the brain is affected the most by an addiction. Activities involved with addiction, including gambling, create a shortcut to the reward system part of the brain, changing its chemical structure and the way the structure works.

Addiction is also different from habits and compulsions because it can feel almost impossible to quit an activity such as gambling, even when your behavior has negative personal consequences. For example, if you are addicted to gambling, you may continue to participate in gambling activities even if you have lost jobs, family members or friends who do not agree with or support your behavior. You don’t feel you can stop and you may even put yourself in dangerous situations to continue gambling. You may not feel like there is help for gambling problems, but you are wrong.

Help for Gambling Problems

There are many treatment methods to help you stop gambling, whether you have a gambling habit, compulsion or addiction. There is not necessarily a cure for gambling problems but there are many effective therapies to help control gambling and/or become abstinent from gambling. 

Gamblers’ Anonymous groups are established in many locations to provide support to a group of people struggling with similar gambling issues. Cognitive behavioral therapy offers one on one therapy with a trained treatment provider who can offer education and assistance in setting goals to change behaviors, thoughts and feelings. Because your behaviors affect your family members and others who love you, it is a good idea to participate in some form of family therapy. Family therapy can assist in developing solutions to the problems being addressed. The support group for family members of the gambler is known as Gamanon.  If you have other symptoms such as anxiety or depression, medications or pharmacological approaches may be beneficial in controlling underlying mental health disorders that are associated with gambling behaviors.

Whether you are struggling with a gambling habit, compulsion or addiction, you can get help. Take the first step of asking for help. This can be difficult but you may find it to be one of the best decisions you make to better your life. You do not have to overcome this obstacle alone. Attend a group, make an appointment with a therapist and start changing your life today!


Chris Massman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. Chris' training includes Family Systems Theory along with numerous other theories. She believes therapy is an art and chooses the theory she feels will most benefit the individual sitting in front of her. Her specialty lies is in the field of Chemical Dependency and Addictions. Chris is currently seeing individuals, couples and families. Chris is a Clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists as well as the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. Chris has two locations including Tarzana and Agoura Hills, CA.