Signs of Gambling Problems & How to Get Gambling Addiction Help

March 8, 2021

growing gambling problem in iowa.

Advertisements for casinos, sports betting websites, online games and other gambling opportunities can be very clever. They hook you with something that sounds like a great deal - FREE $5 when you sign up or your first bet covered - not large endorsements, but it’s enough to get you started. Many people can stop or cut off their spending after they hit a designated amount, but others start making riskier bets at higher amounts and don’t quit until they’re in trouble. When they are struggling financially, they continue to gamble and believe it will help them win enough to pay back the previous debt. This is how the tumultuous cycle of a gambling addiction begins.

Most people only visit casinos occasionally, or they’ll get involved in online or sports gambling as a friendly competition. When you’re starting out and it’s all fun and games, it can be an entertaining activity to do with friends, but remember to check in with yourself once in a while. There’s no harm in gambling for an occasion, but when it becomes a habit or something you rely on, that’s a sign of a gambling problem forming.

Although it’s not typically discussed, increased accessibility to gambling has made it a larger issue in recent years. Gambling problems are becoming more common, especially with the legalization of online sports betting in Iowa and the increase in video game usage and in-app purchases during the pandemic. In this article, we will explain what exactly gambling addiction is, how the brain becomes addicted to gambling, what to do if you recognize a gambling problem in yourself or someone you love, how to get help and more. If you or a loved one is struggling with a gambling problem, read on or skip ahead to learn about helpful resources available in Iowa.

Gambling Addiction Help Table of Contents

We encourage you to learn more about the increasing problem of gambling addiction, but you can jump ahead to learn about a specific section by clicking on the following headings:

What is gambling addiction?

Gambling addiction is a disorder where someone can’t control their gambling. It consumes them and their actions, and they will continue to take risks and bets regardless of the consequences - even when they know the odds are against them or it will put them further in debt. You may also hear the phrases pathological gambling, compulsive gambling or gambling disorder - these are other names that mean gambling addiction. People with this disorder should seek professional gambling addiction help to stop their behaviors, since often, they cannot quit gambling or control their gambling impulses on their own.

Problem gambling is any type of gambling behavior which has negative effects on your life. While not as severe as a gambling addiction, problem gambling often leads to poor decision making regarding gambling and money management. Stealing money or missing work and other commitments to gamble are a few signs of a gambling problem.

Why Is Gambling Addictive? How the Brain Gets Addicted to Gambling

Gambling is not an ingestible substance, but it’s highly addictive. According to Kim Blakeman, Clinical Supervisor at UCS Healthcare with a background in gambling addiction treatment, gambling can become addictive because of the way your brain reacts to the thrill of winning. It releases dopamine into the brain, triggering excitement temporarily and a feeling of wanting more, so those with a gambling problem are always looking for their next win to get that feeling back.

”Gambling addiction depends on the person, but usually people get more addicted when they get a big win. As they get deeper into the addiction, they need to bet more money and spend more time gambling to get their fix. Some people that gamble are looking for a thrill, while others use it as an escape or distraction.

- Kim Blakeman, Clinical Supervisor at UCS Healthcare

But to truly understand how gambling addiction occurs, we’ll dive a little deeper into how the brain reacts to this behavior.

Gambling was not recognized as an addictive disorder until recently. It was first categorized as a psychiatric problem, similar to other impulsive conditions, then was changed to “gambling disorder” in 2013, says BrainFacts. This put gambling addiction in the same category as other serious disorders, such as alcohol addiction and substance use disorders. The reason for the change is due to scientific tests and research proving many similarities in the impact on the brain when someone gambles or uses drugs.

Connection Between Gambling Addiction and Substance Use Disorder

The act of gambling lights up the reward system in the brain the same way it responds to drinking or doing drugs. Evidence shows that someone with a gambling problem and a substance use problem will have less stimulation in the ventral striatum and the prefrontal cortex sections of the brain. The ventral striatum helps you process rewards and evaluates the short-term vs. long-term gains. Your decision making and impulse control abilities are connected to the prefrontal cortex, meaning you’ll be distracted by the current “reward” and forget about the damages it could cause later on.

Because the brain responds similarly to gambling and drug abuse, it is common for individuals struggling with a gambling problem to experience other addictions or mental health disorders. This is known as co-occurring disorder, and the most likely pair is a gambling disorder and alcohol addiction existing at the same time, according to PsychGuides.

The parallels in the brain for any of these types of addictions are a reason why people trying to quit will have comparable reactions. Someone trying to stop gambling will feel the same withdrawal symptoms and need to “get a fix” like someone with a substance use disorder. The most effective way to put an end to this disorder is to seek gambling addiction treatment.

“Although the most common type of co-occurring disorder for someone who gambles is a substance use disorder, gambling addiction can also be common among people with mental health disorders or physical health issues. Patients have commented that gambling was the only thing that helped with their anxiety or took their mind off bodily pain. The reasons for starting and the methods to quit are unique for each person.”

- Kim Blakeman, Clinical Supervisor at UCS Healthcare

Types of Gambling Which Can Lead to Addiction

When you think of a gambling problem, you probably picture someone who doesn’t know when to quit at a slot machine or the poker table. Both of these could be true, but gambling addiction does not only refer to traditional gambling. Any type of behavior which causes excessive spending and negatively impacts your life is a form of gambling, including:

  • Traditional Gambling Addiction: Casinos offer a wide variety of betting options, from slots and machines to dice or card games. They’re meant to provide entertainment and give you that thrill if you get lucky with a win. Plus, casinos are designed to make you lose track of time and keep betting as long as you’re willing to stay and risk your money. Casinos are becoming more prevalent in Iowa, and the increased accessibility and normalization has led to more individuals struggling with gambling addictions.
  • Sports Gambling Addiction: In August 2019, Iowa became the 11th state to offer legal sports betting to its residents over the age of 21. While most people see this as a way to make your sports’ viewing experience a little more interesting, it can lead to big problems for others. Sports gambling is completely out of the control of the person making the bet, and in some cases, game upsets can be financially devastating.
  • Lottery Gambling Addiction: Betting on the lottery, pull-tabs and other ticket gambling games can start out as a small habit - something you get every once in a while when you stop at the gas station. However, you can tell if you have a gambling problem if you find yourself needing to buy a ticket every day or multiple times per day.
  • Online Games & In-App Purchase Addiction: Impulsive in-game purchasing has been disguised as one of the easiest ways to start addiction at a younger age. Mesmerizing games like Candy Crush that entice users to purchase coins, lives or points to continue playing and advancing are just as dangerous as online casinos or virtual poker tables. In-game purchase addiction can happen to people of all ages, so consider limiting time playing games online.

When Gambling Becomes a Problem: Signs of a Gambling Addiction

Many addictions start as something you do every once in a while for fun. You don’t always notice when that activity starts to take up a majority of your thoughts, always thinking about when you’ll be gambling next. If you’re noticing these signs of gambling addiction in yourself or your loved ones, it may be time to seek help.

How to tell if you have a gambling problem:

  • Inability to Control Gambling: Some individuals will go to great lengths to gamble regularly or will be very upset when forced to stop. In severe cases, people with a gambling problem will wear adult diapers to the casino, skip meals or forget to take their medication because they need to stay in their lucky spot.
  • Hiding Your Gambling: When loved ones try to help someone with a gambling disorder, the individual will sometimes minimize how often they’re betting. If you feel the need to downplay your gambling habits, it’s probably because you know it’s happening too often.
  • Withdrawing From Usual Activities: Addictions can get in the way of things we used to love or our responsibilities. If you choose to gamble instead of spending time with friends and family, missing important events or skipping work, you may be struggling with a gambling problem.
  • Financial Problems: Making bets when you don’t have the money or are already in debt is a sign of a gambling addiction. If you’re stealing, relying on others to help cover expenses or gambling is putting you into debt and you still can’t stop, you should seek help.
  • Feeling Guilty or Out of Control: Usually someone with a gambling addiction knows what they’re doing is harmful, but can’t stop their habits. These negative feelings or thoughts are the first steps to recognizing you may need gambling addiction help. Gambling addiction treatment programs can help you get on track towards recovery.
  • Riskier Betting Habits: If you’re feeling the need to gamble larger amounts of money or make bets more frequently to seek the same thrill, that’s a sign of a gamling addiction. This behavior can be very hazardous to the individual’s financial situation since it can put them into large debts more quickly.

How to Deal With Gambling Addiction

If you notice the signs of a gambling problem for a loved one or they approach you wanting to make a change, there’s ways you can help.

How to Help Someone With a Gambling Addiction

How to Help a Friend or Loved One with Gambling Addiction: Holding loved ones with a gambling problem accountable can be tricky, especially if they’re not ready to make the change. It’s important to remember that they may not fully understand their addiction and why they can’t stop either. Friends and family members can try these tactics to help:

  • Spend more time with them so they’re not spending time at a casino or online gaming.
  • Be there for them when they’re ready to talk about their problems.
  • If you have access to their finances, keep a close eye on them. Ask if they would be okay with you helping track their spending.
  • Suggest therapy, support groups and gambling addiction help.
  • Check in on them during times when they would normally turn to gambling and ask about their progress.
  • Be patient and supportive of their journey through recovery.
  • Learn more about resources to help a loved one from Your Life Iowa or call Iowa’s gambling addiction hotline, 1-800-BETS-OFF.

How to Cope With a Spouse with Gambling Addiction:

Gambling addictions are not only difficult for the individual personally struggling, but for their family as well. Often, gambling addiction can be easy to hide if the individual struggling has sole control over the finances. Finding out that your loved one has put you into a great amount of debt and has been dishonest about your financial situation can be extremely overwhelming. This realization can turn your world upside down.

According to Big Think, 20% of individuals with a gambling addiction will commit suicide, and they are the most likely group to consider suicide compared to any other addiction types. Other studies have also shown that the spouse is at the same or higher risk of suicide once they’ve been told about the severity of the gambling problem.

As you work through your spouse’s gambling addiction, make sure you take care of yourself as well. Gambling addiction can be hard to process and many loved ones of those with a gambling problem, find it helpful to talk with a professional.

How to Stop Gambling: Self-Help for Gambling Problem

If you’re thinking, I have a gambling problem - how do I stop gambling? know that you are not alone! This is something that many people silently struggle with, and the problem continues to grow as gambling means become more accessible.

How to quit gambling if you have a problem:

  • Understand Your Gambling Addiction: The first step to recovery is identifying the problem, including what causes you to gamble and what types of issues it is causing in your life. Reflecting on the reasons or triggers to your gambling behavior can help you avoid them, and working to correct the problems it has caused in your life and relationships can motivate you to quit gambling.
  • Try Different Activities: Opting to check out other hobbies can help you cut back on gambling or focus on healthier habits. Getting involved in other projects or activities is a great way to spend time with others and can help you hold yourself accountable.
  • Plan Ahead to Avoid Boredom or Triggers: If you know there’s something that would urge you to gamble or it’s something you like to do when you’re bored, find ways to keep yourself busy. It could be trying new activities, calling a friend, taking a walk, volunteering or another opportunity that will keep you occupied.
  • Talk With Someone: Whether it’s a friend, family member or professional help, make sure someone you can trust knows that you’re struggling with an addiction. Allowing them to help hold you accountable or participate in new hobbies with you might help you achieve your goals.

Who can I talk to about gambling addiction?

The 24-hour Gambling Addiction Hotline is 1-800-BETS-OFF in Iowa. You can call 1-800-BETS-OFF (1-800-238-7633) at any time, or text (855) 895-8398 to chat with someone about your gambling addiction and get the assistance you need.

How does 1-800-BETS-OFF work? What happens when I call?

1-800-BETS-OFF is run by Your Life Iowa, and was created to help people find support and to help them with their health. This gambling hotline offers a judgement-free environment for people with addictions or their loved ones to ask questions and get valuable resources.

The team on the other end of the line will ask you some questions to get to know your situation before offering you recommendations for help, such as gambling addiction treatment with UCS Healthcare or resources for helping friends and family.

Anyone could be at risk of a gambling addiction or disorder. The increased accessibility of gambling in Iowa has made it easier to get started and continue feeding the habit. UCS Healthcare and our gambling experts believe we haven’t fully seen the impact of more accessible gambling. There are many Iowans with gambling problems who are silently struggling. It’s important to know the signs of a gambling problem so you can help those around you if gambling is something you or a loved one do for entertainment.

Get Gambling Addiction Help & Treatments

If you’re ready to make a change and stop struggling with your gambling addiction, we want to help. You can call 1-800-BETS-OFF or visit Your Life Iowa for more information on gambling problems, or contact UCS Healthcare to learn about our gambling addiction treatment. Our mission is to treat your whole health, and we specialize in treating many types of addictions. UCS Healthcare’s experts can help you learn to live a more fulfilling life without the stress and worry of your addictions controlling you.