There are 24 million gamblers in the United Kingdom.
The UK government official figures say that 0.7% of the population are addicted to gambling. That might sound like a small figure but actually that’s approximately 430,000 people! What’s more academics, including some of those who came to this figure, think it is conservative and understates the real problem.
Why is that? Well one reason is that the UK has the largest online gambling market in the world. Many of the restrictions that are placed on high street betting shops and all physical bookies don’t apply to online gambling sites who are free to encourage problem gamblers to spend more and more.
In one study of online games, just 4% of the total players created 78% of revenues!
What is addiction?
Addiction is defined as not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point that it can cause you physical, financial or emotional harm. It is estimated that around 1 in 3 people are addicted to something, most common addictions are; drinking, drug taking and gambling, but people can be addicted to anything, from shopping, food, even exercise.
Anything can lead to an addiction if it is carried out to the point it can be harmful.
Addiction can be physical and psychological. The root of addiction starts with feelings of enjoyment and then the urge to carry out the behaviour again, often though the behaviour has to increase or intensify to reach the same initial level of enjoyment. When the addictive behaviour isn’t being carried out the person may experience withdrawals, which can lead to the behaviour being carried out again and again to avoid these unpleasant feelings.
Some people think they can carry out potential harmful behaviours without becoming addicted, although it is true that everyone has different levels of tolerance and will power, ultimately addiction is non-judgmental and no one is completely immune from addiction.
Similar to other common addictions, like drinking or drug taking, gambling addictions start with a feeling of enjoyment. The thrill of winning, the tension of a neck to neck race or game that ends in a nail biting finish and the euphoric feeling when the big jackpot is yours. There is a point, however, during a gamblers story where there is a tipping point. Placing a bet no longer becomes a fun past time, but a compulsion. The thrill of a win is replaced with the anxiety of having to win and the big win just isn’t big enough to cover your losses. The options; place one more bet, the next one will be the one, one more loan to cover the losses and one more game to try and pay it off.
Gambling was traditionally associated with casinos, scratch cards or betting shops, but with the increase in betting websites, gambling websites and mobile apps, it has become much easier for people with issues with gambling to be able to place bets at their fingertips through their phone at any place or time. This can make it more difficult for people trying to change their behaviour as instead of avoiding betting shops or places to gamble, they now have to resist using their phone or laptop to place bets.
Gambling is now viewed in the same ways as other addiction disorders and it is recognised that it can have similar negative effects on the mind, body and relationships.
What can a gambling addiction look like?
When gambling moves from a harmless pastime to a compulsion the signs might at first slip past un-noticed. A compulsion is a deep-rooted feeling that you have to do a habit or certain behaviour. You might find yourself thinking about putting on a bet during the day or having the urge to use your phone to access betting apps. At its worst a compulsion can feel very similar to anxiety with people have physical sensations such as increased heart rate, sweating and feeling like there’s a tight knot in your stomach.
It’s very easy to lose more than you win when the vicious circle of gambling takes control of your life. People can spend much more than they realise and it’s not until it reaches crisis point that it’s realised there is a problem. Often these money issues are kept hidden from loved ones. Mounting debt can mean that in the gamblers mind there’s even more reason to make one last bet, the next win will be the one, very rarely is this the case and often you’re left with mounting debt, rising anxiety and the building fear your loved ones are going to find out.
Lots of loved ones report that they only became aware of the extent of the problem when they found out about the debt. Even though things can quickly spiral you might become aware that your gambling or debt as a result is problematic, the control that gambling will have over you is that the answer isn’t to stop, it’s to carry on but not to tell anyone and gamble in secret. Some people even start taking out loans or credit cards to hide where their money is going.
Use of other substances
Being within the throws of a gambling addiction can take its toll on your stress level and you might develop a substance misuse problem. Some people turn to drink or drugs because of the worry of debt or when trying to manage the compulsions to gamble get too much and they find they can’t relax, cope or sleep without the help of alcohol or drugs. Often this can just make matters worse by their influence on how you make decisions and because as well as trying to find the funds to gamble you now have to find a way to pay for another habit which you might also be trying to hide from your partner, friends and family.
Changes to mood and behaviour
You might not see it or feel it to begin with but the effects that a gambling addiction, especially one you’re trying to keep from people, can have on your mood and behaviour can be extreme. Trying to keep a lid on rising worry about being found out, the stress of managing out of control debt and throw into the mix the use of drugs or alcohol can make people tightly strung, experiencing mood swings, feelings of high anxiety or depression, maybe arguing more with loved ones who might be trying to find out what the matter is.
Alongside the mental and emotional changes, the effects of addictions and the consequences of a gambling problem can also lead to physical changes such as; difficulty sleeping properly, decreased appetite and increased risk of developing illness due to the high stress chemicals in the body
What can I do if I think I have a gambling addiction?
Admit the problem
Sometimes this option is taken out of your hands, especially if your partner or loved ones have found out about the problem and confronted you about it. But, if you can be the one who tells them it can help those first few steps of getting the help you need. It might be one of the hardest hurdles to get over on the recovery journey but looking back it will be one of the best things you’ve done and the sooner you decide to do it the better.
If you don’t think your gambling is at the point of crisis, maybe you’re not in debt but have noticed you’re gambling more than before and would like to take steps to avoid it developing further. Recovery from addiction involves changing behaviours and habits and forming healthier ones.
Try changing your routine, for example if you go past the betting shop on the way home and it’s become routine to nip in, change your route avoiding the road the shop is on. If you gamble in the evening because you’re bored and there’s nothing to do, join a gym and go when you would normal be placing bets. Some of the best ways to overcome cravings is to distract the brain and immerse yourself into something else, the healthier it is the better. Choose things that involve being around other people can be really beneficial, with the social aspects helping you continue to make the change long term.
Guided self help
If you’re in a position where you feel you do have a problem with a gambling addiction, but maybe aren’t ready to speak to a professional there are guided self-help activities available through online resources where you might find some more practical tips on how you can manage your addiction, put in place plans to start addressing some of the effects of gambling, for instance seeking debt advice. Links to these are at the bottom of this article.
Join a programme
Know that your gambling is a problem and you need to address it before the consequences become disastrous, or has your gambling reached the point of disaster? Maybe it’s time to think about joining a 12-step programme to support and guide you through recovery alongside people who are going through and have been through a gambling addiction.
Gamblers Anonymous provide this support and through their website you will be able to link into groups and support in your area.
Where to go for help
Might sound a bit strange to go to your GP for help with a gambling problem. But they can often not only link you in with support close to home, but also provide support for the emotional or physical effects that the addiction might be having.
GamCare is an organization that provides support and advice for people with a gambling addiction, concerned about their gambling or living with someone with a problem. Support is available 24/7 and there are group forums where you can speak to other people going their own challenges without being face to face in a room.
Royal College of Psychiatrists
As previously mentioned, the Royal College of Psychiatrists offer some guided self-help information and links to how the CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) intervention might help. GamCare also provide some great self-help links and resources.
Similar to GamCare Gamblers Anonymous offer confidential and non-judgmental support and advice as well as the option of joining as 12 step programme to address the hurdles of overcoming a gambling addiction.
Articles on UK Gambling
GamCare (2019) Gambling Impacts [online] available at: https://www.gamcare.org.uk/gambling-impacts/
GamCare (2019) Why Do People Gamble? [online] available at: https://www.gamcare.org.uk/gambling-impacts/why-do-people-gamble/