In this guide, we are going to comprehensively overview the potential contributing factors of pathological gambling, symptoms, treatment options and self-help techniques.

Pathological gambling

Pathological gambling, also known as compulsive gambling, refers to the raving urge to gamble even if it has negative consequences.

It is similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder and is one of the types of impulse-control disorders where the person is unable to resist the impulses and engage in excessive gambling.  

Most people suffering from pathological gambling are often unaware or in denial leading to many serious problems.

It is also related to other behavioural disorders like anxiety, depression, stress, or bipolar disorder.

Many people take an illegal path like stealing or running up debts to get cash for gambling. 

Gambling can go from fun, innocuous activity to an unhealthy preoccupation with serious consequences.

Gambling can be through bets on sports, at the tracks, casinos, poker, scratch cards, or online.

A person with a gambling addiction would not care about its adverse effects. 

They will gamble, spending more and more money and time regardless of knowing the consequences.

It can significantly affect your relationship, interfere with your work and social life, and lead to financial crises. 

Progression and Statistics:

In the past few years, gambling has been legalized in many countries around the world.

A general study shows that around 60% of the population has gambled within one year.

People diagnosed with gambling addiction range from 2%- 3% in America alone, while other studies show that it tends to affect 1% of the population globally. 

It has also been found that men suffer more from pathological gambling than women and tend to develop it at a far younger age than women.

However, the symptoms and the disorder itself tend to worsen at a much faster rate in women. 

The addiction starts with the usual urge to win, and the gambler begins to spend more and more money.

Over time, the player starts to fall behind on cash and use other illegal sources such as stealing, scams, and prostitution.

That brings unnecessary stress and causes several crises. 

Causes and Risk Factors:

Although there is no reasonable cause of pathological gambling, it can occur as a result of a combination of environmental, biological, and genetic factors. 

Medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease:

It has been observed in many individuals who are given drugs to treat Parkinson’s disease to develop many impulse-control disorders such as pathological gambling or shopping.

That is usually due to enhance the activity of the dopamine that has rare side effects.

Mental health disorders:

People who suffer from stress, anxiety, substance abuse, and personality disorders tend to have a higher risk of developing a gambling disorder.

It is also associated with ADHD, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Age and Gender:

Pathological gambling develops over time, usually during teenage or young adulthood.

It tends to progress faster in women than in men. However, the pattern is similar among both. 

Family history:

People who have friends or families with gambling disorders are more vulnerable to develop a gambling addiction. 

Other factors:

Most people develop pathological gambling as a result of a particular set of biological vulnerabilities.

It may include peer pressure, social stresses, and way of thinking. These factors increased the risk of pathological gambling among individuals.

These people tend to feel disconnected during gaming and fail to keep track of the money won and lost.

Diagnosis Dispute:

Pathological gambling is described as extensive gambling without any thought about the consequences.

Its primary symptoms are loss of control, preoccupation, and inability to stop. The criteria set to identify pathological gamblers are tailing losses and having illegal sources to pay debts and finance gambling.

People who meet one or more diagnostic tests are considered problem gamblers, while those who meet more than 5 have a compulsive gambling disorder. 

Many people characterized pathological gambling as impulse control disorders, while others include it as an addiction disorder.

Both conditions share related features, with addiction disorder associated mainly with the loss of fear for adverse consequences and obsessive-compulsive disorder having similar symptoms like tension and repetition.

However, gambling disorder should be studied as a separate entity having unique features, disease course, and physiology. 

Recent studies conducted on this disorder have shown that pathological gambling is more similar to addiction disorder than the compulsive disorder.

Our brain has a reward system that sends out a chemical called dopamine when we engage in certain activities.

Drug usage, such as cocaine, increases the activity of dopamine ten times. Pathological gamblers and drug addicts share a similar genetic outlook for stimulus.

Just as drug addicts need stronger doses of highs over time, players also engage in riskier ventures.

Similarly, both of them show signs of withdrawal when they are separated from their source of thrill and high.

Many studies show that pathological gambling and substance abuse alter many of the brain pathways in similar ways.

Moreover, gamblers like drug addicts become insensitive to their highs over time.

It is seen in many patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease to develop gambling and drug addiction.

Signs and Symptoms:

Pathological gambling involves persistent problem gambling. It is usually referred to as “hidden illness” as it has no physical symptoms, unlike drug or alcohol addiction.

Pathological gambling behaviour is identified by five or more of the following traits.

  • Obsession: The person suffering from pathological gambling is preoccupied with gambling. They have recurring thoughts about their previous gambling experience or thinking about new ways to get money for gambling. They are always planning their next move or venture. 
  • Tolerance: The person develops an understanding of impulses like drug addicts that caused high. That’s why they need to wager a higher amount of money to achieve the preferred level of excitement. 
  • Inability to Control: The person is unable to control wagering and has made several unsuccessful attempts to stop or reduce gambling. 
  • Withdrawal: The person that is trying to stop gambling becomes moody, edgy, and irritable at the smallest of things. 
  • Source of Escape: Often, people turn to gamble to escape from their problems and stresses. They find relief from their anxiety, sense of loneliness, depression, and guilt. 
  • Chasing lost money: People suffering from gambling disorder tend to return again and again in hopes of winning back their lost money. This results in the loss of more money.
  • Lying and Hiding: People with compulsive gambling disorder try to conceal their addiction and lie to their friends and family about the degree of involvement. 
  • Illegal Activity: People are often involved in unlawful doings to finance their gambling by getting money through stealing, fraud, credit card scam, and forgery.  
  • Endangered relationships: The people involved in pathological gambling don’t care about the consequences of gambling. They have jeopardized their work, significant relationships, education, and career because of gambling. 

Consequences and Complications:

The results of pathological gambling range from biological and psychological to social outlook and may lead to the financial crisis, deterioration of mental and emotional health, and legal problems.

While some complications are permanent, others may resolve as gambling behaviour is under controlled.

The consequences of gambling disorder are stated below:

Biological effects: 

Recent studies have shown that pathological gambling harms the brain and the body.

It alters brain activity and affects brain regions that are also involved in drug addiction.

Gambling behaviour changes the neurochemical in the brain known as dopamine and increases its concentration.

It decreases metabolism and affects one’s health.

 It causes emotional and physical distress to the body. Pathological gamblers are also seen to have an abnormal response to stress and are usually sleep-deprived.

In addition to this, they are at higher risk of substance abuse and alcohol addiction.

Moreover, pathological gambling also impacts the eating patterns, obesity rates, and nutritional status of the patients.

And mostly the patients with this disorder also show the symptoms of binge eating as they loss the inhibitory control. 

Psychological consequences:

Gambling can have a dramatic impact on a person’s mental health.

The stress of winning and losing can trigger the symptoms of depression, anxiety, obsession, and personality disorders.

Pathological gamblers are seen to have a higher percentage of mood disorders like unipolar and bipolar disorders. 

The events of gambling increase the symptoms of stress, hopelessness, guilt, and depression.

However, depressive symptoms arise due to gambling can reduce with its cessation. Similarly, wagering has a direct impact on anxiety. 

Gambling is a way for people to reduce stress and acts as a tension reliever.

However, it is seen that people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and social phobia.

Social Consequences:

The significant social consequences of gambling are financial loss, illegal doings, bankruptcy, indebted, unemployment, and emotional adversities faced by the families of a gambling addict.

Gambling affects almost every social aspect of a person. It can jeopardize relationships, careers, jobs, and educational opportunities.

Many people turn to illegal ways to get money or become bankrupt due to the enormous loss in gambling.

This can lead to imprisonment and other legal issues.

Many people are unable to deal with all these complications and look for an easy way out by attempting suicide.

Treatment Options for Pathological Gambling

The most significant step in overcoming pathological gambling is to acknowledge the problem.

Most gamblers remain in denial and don’t seek help. It takes lots of courage to come forward and take measures to get rid of this addiction.

People involved in illegal behaviour tend to have severe symptoms of pathological gambling.

 Although there is no proper treatment for gambling disorder, it is reported that people are treated through methods used in treating other addictive disorders.

  • Many people participate in gambling treatment programs that focus on the biopsychosocial perspective, such as in Gambler’s Anonymous. These programs teach people techniques to stop engaging in gambling behaviours. 
  • Another medium of treatment is psychotherapy. It can be either in the form of an individual or group setting. Many collateral participants are involved. Cognitive behavioural therapies or CBT is used as evidence-based psychotherapy. It includes brief involvement and motivational improvement. 
  • Many doctors recommend medication in combination with psychotherapy. Antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and narcotic antagonists are given to patients. These proofs are helpful for pathological gamblers. 
  • One way to overcome gambling is to limit exposure and avoid going to places that have gambling or betting activities. 
  • To stop gambling, people should replace the components required for gambling in healthier ways. They should invest their time and energy over other things such as exercising and taking up new hobbies.

Some Helpful resources

  1. All Bets Are Off: Losers, Liars, and Recovery from Gambling Addiction
  2. Pathological Gambling: Etiology, Comorbidity, And Treatment
  3. Overcoming Pathological Gambling: Therapist Guide (Treatments That Work)
  4. This Must Be Hell: A Look at Pathological Gambling
  5. Problem And Pathological Gambling (Advances in Psychotherapy-Evidence-Based Practice)


Compulsive gambling is a type of addiction, so hence there are high chances that it could be treated.

The key to a successful and positive result for this mental disorder is structured and consistent treatment.

When it comes to treating such mental issues, medication isn’t the only thing that the patient requires.

Such persons also need support and love of their friends and family, which would motivate them to get proper treatment. 

Pseudologia Fantastica is another pathological behavior, different to pathological gambling.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. Is pathological gambling a mental disorder?

Yes, pathological gambling (also called ‘compulsive gambling’) is one of the mental disorders that is marked by a pattern of consistent gambling despite the adverse psychological, social and physical consequences. 

Q2. What does gambling do to the brain?

According to the research, gambling interacts with the reward system in the brain and influences it in the same manner as drugs do.

Research has established that people who have a higher vulnerability to indulge in pathological gambling, usually, have an under-active reward system in the brain and they would turn to different methods to activate this reward pathway often (e.g. via gambling). 

Q3. Is there a gambling gene?

Most likely, yes.

According to research, an individual is more likely to indulge in pathological gambling, if they have a parent who struggled with pathological gambling.

This research established that gambling addiction may have a genetic component that may be inherited from either parent.

Q4. Does gambling cause depression?

Not necessarily, as when a person losses they are more likely to feel depressed or gloomy.

Gamblers most often suffer frequent loss at gambling-games and therefore, the comorbid presence of depression with pathological gambling is not uncommon. 

Q5. Does gambling cause anxiety?

Gambling increases the vulnerability to experience anxiety because it activates the brain to a point of chronic ‘alertness’. 

Q6. What is a pathological gambler?

A pathological (compulsive) gambler is an individual who finds it hard to resist the impulses to gamble.

This uncontrollable urge to gamble may result in severe circumstances because the person suffering from this problem is often in denial or unaware of the existence of this problem.


  1. Symptoms and causes of pathological gambling
  2. Finding therapist for pathological gambling
  3. Consequences of pathological gambling
  4. Risk factors for pathological gambling
  5. An Overview of Pathological Gambling

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