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When does gambling become a problem – and what can we do about it?

One of the top sources of stress for adults is financial worries. Following the pandemic, a rise in the cost of living, and a global recession looming on the horizon, it’s not surprising that many of us are worried about how we will make ends meet.

In the background of all this financial uncertainty, gambling might seem like the answer to our problems or at least a temporary escape from them. But what happens when gambling stops being fun, we’re running up losses and worrying about money more than ever before?

Illustration of someone emptying a piggy bank and looking worried about money

Problems with gambling can happen to anyone - regardless of who they are or where they come from. Whether it’s scratch cards, online gambling, betting on sports or nights out at the casino, there are more opportunities to gamble than ever before and they are available to us 24/7.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether our behavior around gambling is healthy, especially if we spend a lot of time with people who also gamble. The signs of problem gambling can include-

  • Skipping lectures or social events to gamble

  • Blowing your student loan on gambling

  • Feeling guilty or stressed about your gambling

  • Selling your stuff for money to gamble

  • Having financial or any other worries because of your gambling

If you are finding it hard to resist the temptation to gamble and it's causing problems in your life, then it's likely that you have a gambling problem.

What is ‘healthy’ gambling?

Gambling isn't necessarily a bad thing. Lots of us enjoy gambling as a leisure or social activity and experience few or no problems as a consequence. In fact, most people have gambled at some point in their lives, even if it’s just the occasional lottery ticket.

People who have a healthy relationship with gambling set limits around how much time they will spend gambling and how much money they are prepared to lose, and they stick to them. Any money gambled is also a reasonable amount, given their personal financial situation.

When does gambling become a problem?

Gambling becomes a problem when someone can’t control the urge to gamble, is preoccupied with thoughts about gambling and keeps gambling, despite any problems it may be causing. Problems with gambling often cause financial difficulties, as well as problems with relationships, studies, work or any other aspect of daily life. It can also cause a huge amount of distress for the person involved.

People who have a gambling problem will continue to gamble regardless of the consequences. They may continually chase losses, get into debt, use up savings or student loans and get into serious financial trouble. They may also find themselves lying or going to great lengths to try and hide their gambling from other people. They may even steal to fund their gambling or to pay debts.

In problem gambling, people tend to overestimate their gambling abilities and underestimate the odds stacked against them. They are also more likely to see gambling as the solution to their financial problems. They may even have particular superstitions or rituals around their gambling, such as wearing the color red for luck, carrying a lucky charm or explaining away losses on ‘bad luck’.

There is often a relationship between problem gambling and mental health problems. Some people may gamble to try and escape from negative emotions, such as anxiety and low mood, as well as any problems that might be going on in their lives. Gambling can also lead to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and low self esteem.

What is gambling disorder?

When problem gambling gets out of control, it can be recognized as an addiction known as gambling disorder. Gambling can stimulate the brain in much the same way as drugs or alcohol, and lead to similar compulsive behaviors and a preoccupation with chasing the next high or buzz.

You may have gambling disorder if you -

  • Need to gamble with larger amounts of money to experience the same thrill

  • Feel agitated when trying to cut down or stop gambling

  • Have made lots of unsuccessful attempts to cut down or stop gambling

  • Spend a lot of time thinking about gambling

  • Gamble as a way of managing difficult emotions such as anxiety or low mood

  • Feel guilty or helpless when you gamble

  • Lose more money than you can afford and then try to win it back

  • Have financial problems because of your gambling

  • Have had problems at work, with your relationships or studies because of your gambling

  • Find that you lie about your gambling

Not everyone who has a problem with gambling has gambling disorder. Problems with gambling can best be seen as on a spectrum. At one end is healthy gambling behavior and at the other is gambling disorder, with problematic gambling somewhere in between.

If you recognize that you are somewhere on the problematic side of gambling, it’s worth bearing in mind that this pattern of behavior can escalate over time, with potentially disastrous consequences. If you are worried about your gambling, it might be time to take stock and think about whether any benefits you get from gambling are worth the cost.

Managing problem gambling

If gambling is causing you problems and you would like to better manage it, the following tips can help

  • Pay your bills and debts on the day you get your student loan or get paid, before you do any gambling

  • Set limits on how much time and money you are prepared to spend gambling, and stick to them

  • Try to look at gambling as a social activity and not as a way to make money

  • If you go out to gamble, don’t take credit cards with you

  • Delete overly tempting gambling apps from your phone

  • Stay away from people and places that tempt you to gamble, when you haven’t planned to do so

  • Spend time with friends and family who don’t gamble and schedule in other enjoyable things to

  • Find something else to be interested in, such as an exciting sport, music, books or anything else that floats your boat

  • Try to delay the urge to gamble and ride out any uncomfortable feelings

  • Learn better ways to manage difficult emotions - there are lots of breathing exercises and relaxation techniques available online

  • Try to address any underlying mental health issues by seeking help

  • Reach out to someone you trust and talk about what’s going on in your life

Some people may be able to reduce and manage their gambling on their own. But many people need help and support.

Getting help and support for problem gambling

Peer support groups can be a huge source of strength and knowledge for people recovering from problem gambling. Peer support means talking to other people who have been through what you are going through, sharing experiences and learning from each other.

There are peer support options available worldwide including gamblers anonymous. You might want to take a look and see if there is anything going on in your area or you could reach out for support on TalkCampus.

It can also be a great relief to speak to someone in your life who you trust and let them know you are struggling. Try to be brave and reach out - you have nothing to be ashamed of. You are struggling with your mental health, which is something that happens to a lot of people.

Additionally, there are options for professional treatment for gambling addiction, including working with a psychologist or therapist, as well as residential treatment programs. Your doctor should be able to point you in the right direction.

If you are feeling that there is no way out and are experiencing thoughts to harm yourself, please see your doctor or seek specialist mental health support urgently.

You may feel frightened and like nobody understands. But there are plenty of people out there who have been exactly where you are right now. People can and do recover from their problem gambling, and they go on to have fulfilling lives with wonderful things in them. There is no reason why you can’t be one of them.

Try not to put yourself down or let others put you down - you deserve to get the help you need and you don’t have to do this alone.


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