When your gambling gets out of control, it can be extremely destructive and devastating to you and to those with whom you associate. Because a gambling addiction develops over time, you, your friends, and family members may not notice that your behavior is compulsive or getting out of hand. However, just because you gamble and enjoy gambling a lot does not mean you are addicted to it.
There are ways to determine whether certain behaviors and activities related to your gambling suggest that you are enjoying a recreational activity or if your gambling has become a compulsive habit with potentially serious consequences. As an addiction psychologist and certified addiction counselor in Pennsylvania, which recently bested New Jersey in combined gambling revenue for 2012 and 2013, many people come to me to find help sorting through the interrelated mental health issues that may fuel gambling behavior in order to determine whether they have a mild gambling problem, a major compulsive and pathological issue, or just an expensive hobby that is all in good fun.
Its rare, but possible, to develop a gambling addiction after your very first gambling experience. When problems develop, they usually progress over time. Many people participate in social gambling for years with no problems. More frequent gambling or life stressors can contribute to social gambling becoming a serious problem. Most casual gamblers can stop gambling when they have to because of losses; they can set a loss limit and easily follow it. People with a compulsive gambling problem feel strong urges to keep gambling to recoup their lost money. When gamblers are betting to chase losses, things can tailspin out of control, gamblers can lose touch with reality, and the issue can manifest in severe and exacting consequences. Over time, this issue can become more and more destructive.
For many compulsive gamblers, gambling is about the thrill, not the money. Some begin to take bigger risks and place larger bets to keep getting more of a thrill; this can take a financial toll. When a gambler is trying to recoup losses, lives can be destroyed. Many folks with whom I work recount that their bottom was when this shift happened and they realized that they were gambling in the hope they could get back their losses.