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The Killer in Your Pocket: The Hidden Dangers of Gambling Addiction

Iphone in the foreground open to a betting app, group of sports fans in the background, sitting at a bar and cheering.

Between the Super Bowl and the NCAA’s March Madness – February and March can be a particularly brutal time for problem gamblers. Now with the legalization of sports gambling and the easy access afforded by smart phones to betting and other gaming apps, gambling has gone mainstream. The ESPN app even regularly outlines the spread and other odds on upcoming games. Before, you had to travel to a casino or racetrack; now, gambling is never further away than your pocket, and it’s easier to hide.

Given this climate, it’s more important than ever to know the warning signs of gambling addiction – when gambling has moved from harmless fun to a serious and potentially dangerous problem. In fact, 2018 research from the Harm Reduction Journal reported that women’s participation in, and harm from gambling, is also steadily increasing. If you’re questioning whether you may have a problem, I recommend taking a break. However, I encourage you to have a strategy in place first. This can include:

Enlisting support from friends or loved ones.

Tell those close to you about your decision. The more support you surround yourself with, the better. If you have an accountability buddy, for example, you can call that person anytime you are struggling, and he or she can help redirect you without judgment.

Rethinking your habits.

Maybe you need to remove apps or games from your phone that are difficult to resist and instead engage in an activity with a friend or family member who knows about your commitment to abstain from gambling. If going to a casino or participating in fantasy football is part of your regular social life, I encourage you to try something else instead.

Creating limits.

There are such things as social gamblers. Make a commitment to your support network that you are not going to bet more than, say, $50 total. If you can’t adhere to that limit, then you may need professional help to address your behavior.

Having an exit strategy for social settings.

If you’re struggling not to gamble, you know that dealing with sports in a social setting, such as a Super Bowl party, can be tough. It’s important to build in an exit strategy ahead of time. Tell your host that you might be leaving at halftime. Have a friend or a support person attend with you, or have someone you can call if you are triggered or uncomfortable. A little planning can help ward off a downward spiral and keep you on track.

If you suspect a loved one has a gambling problem

Problem gamblers are particularly adept at hiding their problems, so often the family has no idea a loved is knee deep in disordered behavior until it results in significant consequences. Especially, in this world of online gambling, it may not be apparent to friends or loved ones that an individual is engaged in the behavior because it’s easy to do it in private in a matter of minutes. So, what should people watch for?

As with any use disorder, it’s important to look for cycles. Somebody who's “winning” is going to be elated and flush, almost manic in their outlook on life, while somebody who has experienced losses may crash with an unexplained bout of depression. The financial struggles brought about by gambling may be well hidden, but the emotional rollercoaster can be highly visible.

There may also be some subtle financial signs of gambling addiction – loans from family that aren’t repaid, grandiose plans to start new businesses that never come to fruition, or mounting debt even when they’re working and should have enough income to cover expenses.

Over time, money problems may become legal ones as the use escalates. Theft and dishonesty around money are prevalent with gambling disorders. Most of the time such theft is limited to the family, but sometimes it spills over into the workplace in the form of embezzlement. The key is to remain aware and look for a consistent pattern.

While gamblers tend to be incredibly secretive about their losses, they may be willing to tell you about their wins. If someone talks frequently about winning money, it may be a sign they are losing just as much, if not more.

Again, family members may or may not see the full depth of the problem. Therefore, it’s important to seek professional help: How to intervene with this person? What questions need to be asked to find out if a loved one is struggling more than they're admitting? There is a tremendous societal taboo about asking someone the details of their finances, and having professional guidance can offer a thorough assessment.

Take withdrawal from gambling seriously

Withdrawal can happen with process-driven disorders such as gaming or gambling just as they do with substance use disorders. The withdrawal isn't biologically life threatening, as it could be with benzodiazepine or alcohol withdrawal. However, there are definite signs and symptoms with dangerous implications that many gamblers experience when they are trying to stop their behavior.

When you take away somebody's access, you take away their “drug of choice” and all their coping strategies. Anxiety and depression can result, leading to social isolation, potentially turning to substances or other unhealthy ways of coping. Explosive anger is not uncommon, and there is a high risk of domestic violence.

There's also an enormously high rate of suicide and attempted suicide with gambling disorders. A gambler may have been trying to keep losses secret, in part out of shame and in part to continue the use. When they have burned through the last of their money – and most of the time they have been stealing or diverting funds as well – when they recognize that their actions are about to come to light, the sense of failure and shame can be overwhelming. If an intervention is necessary, it should be done carefully and thoroughly with guidance from a professional.

The good news is that there are both outpatient and residential programs geared towards digital use disorders and gambling addiction. Patients learn how to address not only the gambling problem but also the underlying issues, so they can recover successfully. There is also a well established 12-step program for gamblers both in person and online.

For those who have questions or concerns

Gambling is only going to become more pervasive in our culture. The professional sports leagues, for example, have begun to embrace the change. The owner of the New Jersey Giants credits sports gambling with driving an increase in TV viewership of NFL games. Online gambling, as well, continues to explode. Right now, New Jersey is the only state outside of Nevada to offer statewide mobile wagering, and already over 80 percent of bets in New Jersey are placed online or through a mobile app. Instant access means more people than ever before are vulnerable.

If you have questions about your or a loved one’s gambling behavior, whether online or otherwise, please reach out for help. It’s only a phone call, and the earlier your gather information the more empowered you are to help yourself or someone else in your life.

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