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There has been abundant scientific research on compulsive gambling, which is sometimes called “gambling disorder” or “pathological gambling”. There is some debate in the scientific community as to whether compulsive gambling is an impulse control disorder or an addiction. Recovery Road Online has no opinion on this debate. Interestingly though, compulsive gambling is in one sense “the original addiction” since the Latin term addictus in Roman use referred to those who could not pay their debts (often due to gambling), and who were therefore sentenced into slavery to the creditor. As a practical matter, we find this description of compulsive gambling from the Mayo Clinic to be accurate and sufficient for treatment.

Compulsive gambling, also called gambling disorder, is the uncontrollable urge to keep gambling despite the toll it takes on your life. Gambling means that you’re willing to risk something you value in the hope of getting something of even greater value.

Gambling can stimulate the brain’s reward system much like drugs or alcohol can, leading to addiction. If you have a problem with compulsive gambling, you may continually chase bets that lead to losses, hide your behavior, deplete savings, accumulate debt, or even resort to theft or fraud to support your addiction.


Signs and symptoms of compulsive gambling (gambling disorder) include:

  • Being preoccupied with gambling, such as constantly planning how to get more gambling money
  • Needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money to get the same thrill
  • Trying to control, cut back or stop gambling, without success
  • Feeling restless or irritable when you try to cut down on gambling
  • Gambling to escape problems or relieve feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression
  • Trying to get back lost money by gambling more (chasing losses)
  • Lying to family members or others to hide the extent of your gambling
  • Jeopardizing or losing important relationships, a job, or school or work opportunities because of gambling
  • Resorting to theft or fraud to get gambling money
  • Asking others to bail you out of financial trouble because you gambled money away


Unlike most casual gamblers who stop when losing or set a loss limit, people with a compulsive gambling problem are compelled to keep playing to recover their money — a pattern that becomes increasingly destructive over time. Some people with a compulsive gambling problem may have remission where they gamble less or not at all for a period of time. However, without treatment the remission usually is not permanent.

Another useful way to think about compulsive gambling is as both an allergy of the body and an obsession of the mind. By allergy we just mean that we have an “abnormal reaction”. If for example someone has an allergy to strawberries, their abnormal reaction is to get hives if they eat strawberries. For us, when we gamble, our abnormal reaction is the need to keep gambling – often for higher and higher stakes. For the normal gambler, when they lose their allotted $20 in the casino on their cruise ship vacation, they typically close their wallet and head out to the pool. This is something we compulsive gamblers are almost never able to reliably do. In this way, we actually have an allergy to the gambling activity indicating that our only solution is one that results in complete abstinence.

However, in addition to the allergy of the body, we also have an obsession of the mind. This is the part of compulsive gambling that is especially baffling and insidious. For unlike our friend with the strawberry allergy who carefully avoids strawberries for his entire life, when we are not gambling, we eventually begin to obsess about gambling again without thought of the consequences. Once we succumb to the obsession and begin gambling, the allergy takes affect and the entire cycle starts again.

An important and especially tragic feature of compulsive gambling is that this is a progressive illness. By that we mean that over time the compulsive gambler inevitably needs to gamble for greater amounts and for longer time periods. The small table stakes games he or she might have played for as a teenager, no longer provide the same rush and a much higher stakes game is required. Sadly, this progressive feature usually continues even during long periods of abstinence. Recovery Road Online members who have abstained from gambling for many years, occasionally relapse and quickly find that in order to get the required thrill, they now have to play for much higher stakes than when they originally quit gambling.

One other common characteristic of compulsive gambling is the tendency towards cross addiction. It is not unusual for people recovering from substance abuse or other addictions to develop the compulsive gambling illness. It seems that they are replacing one addiction for another. Approximately one third of compulsive gamblers have also had issues with other addictive behaviors such as substance abuse, food addictions or sex addictions.

A final point about compulsive gambling worth noting is the difference between men and women. Years ago, statistics indicated twice as many men as women became compulsive gamblers. It is not entirely clear, however, how much of this was the result of the traditional male dominated environments of poker and craps games, sports betting, racetracks etc. Also, it appeared that the illness generally progressed faster in women and they tended to have shorter gambling careers before they sought treatment.

Our women members (only half-jokingly) like to attribute this to the simple fact that they are smarter than the men. Fortunately, in spite of these differences, both men and women respond positively to recovery in the Recovery Road Online Fellowship. Sometimes women members have initially felt uncomfortable at meetings that are predominately men. But those who stay usually find that these “brother Recovery Road members” have shared their pain of compulsive gambling and their joy of recovery. Today, many of our fellowship meetings are now being attended by a larger majority of women.



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