Understanding the Mind of a Gambling Addict

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Much compulsive gambling behaviour is based on unrealistic thinking, to a greater degree than that found in other addictions. We are all conditioned to gambling by life, perhaps unknowingly, but it is how we respond that dictates if we will become addicted or not. At Smarmore Castle, admissions for Gambling Disorders increase yearly. In this article, we shall dissect the mind of gambling addicts and find solutions to some of their behaviours.

“When I was young and unknown, I was called a gambler, as I continued with my investment operations, over time I was called a speculator. Now I am called a banker. But I have been doing the same thing all the time.”

(Sir Ernest Cassel, banker to King Edward VII).

In the Mind Of  A Gambling Addict

In the Mind Of A Gambling Addict, Life Is a Gamble

Gambling is a vast global industry and gambling addiction is a huge problem. We should not be surprised. After all, life is a succession of bets: your student loan at university is a bet on your future employability, your car, health and life insurance are all bets, how you invest for your pension or other wealth plans is a bet, bankers and hedge funders are all gamblers, even religious belief is a straight bet, as theologian Blaise Pascal so memorably reminded us.

Losing your shirt on a horse now and then seems quite trivial by comparison. Imagine what the Bank of England and the Vatican stand to lose! Like it or not, we’re all conditioned in a society where betting constantly happens, even if controlled and regulated, in some form or other.

It is not betting that’s the problem, it’s our attitude towards betting and the way some of us respond compulsively.

A Mug’s Game

We all know gambling is a mug’s game. The house always wins, the evidence of that is overwhelming for most games of betting and chance, yet millions of people gamble compulsively every day with dire consequences. For that matter, alcohol and heroin are demonstrable killers, if you take too much, but millions do that regularly too. Addiction makes people do unacceptable things. Addict of any sort can always convince themselves that they are different.  A definition of addiction is to continue an activity you know will harm you.

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Problem Gamblers

The trouble arises when we discover, often at a young age, that there are pleasures to be had from the act of gambling, whatever form it may take – casinos, horses, slot machines or the stock market and cryptocurrencies.

If we get into the habit of drawing risky conclusions from insufficient evidence and putting money on the outcome, we will likely end up with what modern psychiatrists quaintly call a ‘gambling disorder’ but the man in the street knows as ‘being taken to the cleaners on a regular basis’.

Problem gambling happens when wishful thinking becomes firm expectations for no good reason, to the point of expecting to win consistently, feeling lucky, chasing losses, having false optimism and generally feeling invincible. That can only happen when the gambler has become detached from reality.

Harmless Fun?

Imagine watching an important football match or horse race. You feel the excitement during the build-up to the event, real thrills during the action and, depending on the result, ecstasy or agony at the end. That is a lot of strong emotions going through your body. Is it harmless fun? A normal person thinks so, and ‘enjoys the ride’. For a few minutes or hours, the brain receptors have been awash with serotonin and dopamine – their favourite substances – but emotions for ordinary people level off quickly afterwards.

 Triumph and Disaster

All gambling experiences end in triumph or disaster. Most people are better than they think they are at handling these. Gambling addicts are not. Triumph inflates their egos so much they become sure-fire winners, born lucky – so they gamble more – as anyone who feels that grandiose would do.

Then, when disaster strikes, it makes them angry, resentful and reckless – so again, they gamble more, now determined to recoup their losses. Losing, for them is an aberration, a message that says not ‘it’s a mug’s game’ but ‘you’re almost there – keep trying.’

The idea of stopping after a win or a loss seems to them as ridiculous as stopping after one drink seems to an alcoholic.

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Four Stages of Gambling Addiction

For most gambling addicts, their addiction takes them through four stages – winning, losing, desperation and despair, whereas ordinary people who just have a bet on the Grand National only experience one of the first two.

What compulsion drives the gambling addict to put themselves through so much emotional pain? Substance abuse has a biochemical side to it that leads to physical dependence, but gambling does not put chemicals into the body, so how does biochemistry affect gamblers?

Brain Chemistry and Gambling Addiction

Excessively pleasure-seeking behaviours like gambling impact the same neurological reward system in the brain that drugs do, and the brain quickly learns to send encouraging reminders of gambling ideation to the subconscious and indeed, conscious mind.

A recent study has shown that the neurotransmitter Norepinephrine is lower than normal in compulsive gamblers. Such people require a greater than the most degree of stimulus to become alert, attentive and generally aroused. They tend to handle the pain of losing money better than others. They may perhaps, therefore, take more risks.  Add to this the addictive brain’s longing for the feel-good Serotonin, Dopamine and the like and we are back into that familiar neuroscience where addictive behaviour of any kind manages to fool the brain into a pattern of spurious rewards and pleasures.

Money Adds Stress

Imagine watching a sporting event but this time, you have bet £100 on a certain outcome. Now, every move generates heightened excitement and also anxiety too. It is becoming stressful now. Are you enjoying the feelings? Probably the answer is yes and no. Some people are better placed to cope with this sort of situation than others. Will it stop you betting more? Unlikely.


Money of course is a fundamental part of gambling, and it intensifies the experience in direct relation to its importance to the gambler – £1k lost may not disturb the sleep of a millionaire but might make an unemployed person suicidal. Yet technology today allows quite ordinary people to trade from home, in ways that expose them to sometimes enormous financial risks. The idea of courage to take big financial decisions now becomes a part of the mix. It brings glamour too, and romance:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch and toss,

And lose and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss…

…you’ll be a Man, my son! (Rudyard Kipling, If).

Kipling’s famous words resonate with compulsive gamblers. The idea of courage, daring, grit and nerve brings a quite undeserved gloss to gambling that addicts grasp on to, regardless of the fact that most are destined to end up despairing, distraught and perhaps contemplating suicide. Gamblers always believe that they are special.

What Is the Mindset of a Compulsive Gambler?

We are all pleasure seekers in some way. With problem gamblers, their way is particularly unhealthy. Their pleasure comes in various forms – a ‘high’ of anticipation and involvement, escape from a negative reality, a feeling of invincibility, and pride in one’s skill. These feelings of course can turn to desperation, despair, guilt and low self-esteem when things go badly, but that will not deter – in fact, it may inspire more reckless addictive behaviour. The ‘high’ will continue regardless of winning or losing – it is what the problem gambler really lives for –

In play there are two pleasures for your choosing:

The one is winning and the other – losing. (Byron, Don Juan, Canto XIV).

Gambling, like all addictions, is an attachment disorder.  It detaches us from the often-unpleasant reality of our daily lives, from being responsible, and from coping with stress.

It is an emotional compromise whereby we substitute short-term pleasure for long-term peace of mind. Although addiction will surely cause the opposite to happen, the desire for emotional wellbeing, control over one’s life, a sense of security, a sense of belonging, and control over one’s life is at the heart of nearly all addictions, and this includes gambling.

That is the paradox that addicts make for themselves through their failure to address their fundamental human needs in a mature fashion.

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As with many addictions, problem gamblers tend to remain emotionally immature. They may see themselves as James Bond or some other romantic ‘gentleman gambler’ who is by definition, a mature and super-capable role model, but that is hopelessly inaccurate. They are in reality, like four-year-olds rushing to enjoy the Bouncy Castle where endless bursts of excitement await in the land of make-believe, slaves to instant gratification and fantasy.

The Role of Denial in Gambling Addiction

John is at home, checking his email. A bookmaker (one of the big names) has emailed him a free bet on tonight’s big football match if he ‘invests’ £10. John extracts his credit card and makes the bet. Later he sees that he has lost, but it doesn’t worry him, and he sleeps well. There have been many such occasions recently, but sometimes John wins and he feels in control. At the end of the month, his credit card statement shows he is nearly at his limit of £3k, but he can afford the minimum required amount monthly and has never missed a payment.

Unknown to his wife, he has fifteen other credit cards in a similar state of borrowing and owes a total of £50k. He has an office job and appears to function normally, but he can’t explain to himself or his wife, why there never seems to be enough in the bank for their needs. John will continue living in denial until a crisis forces him to act.

His denial is comparable to the denial of substance abusers and people with other addictions. What makes him different is his additional layer of fantasising that takes him beyond the denial of people with other addictions and makes his behaviour so hard to control or stop.

John still believes, despite evidence to the contrary, that his day of salvation will come, when that jackpot in the sky will be his and everyone will be happy. This may lead him into extremes of borrowing and criminality which he may justify as necessary for his ‘investment’ activity.

Beyond Denial

Most substance abusers or other behavioural addiction sufferers do not have this struggle with unreality – they may have plenty of denial about their actual addiction and its consequences, but they do not tend to idealise or romanticise their behaviour and its potential for rewards (especially financial) the way that gamblers do.

Where other addictions are concerned, people find themselves trapped in the desperate daily struggle to assuage the pain of their bodily cravings – it is compulsive and depressing and they do not see themselves on a quest for a pot of gold that will make everything turn out right.

Treatment and Recovery

Successful treatment for problem gambling must address the unrealistic thinking that is such a feature of this particular addiction. At Smarmore Castle we challenge thoughts and expectations using reality checks such as:

  1. How much has gambling really cost you in money, in time, and in loss of control (powerlessness)?
  2. What is the reality of your situation today and what will you do about it?

We will then follow a process of exploring unrealistic thoughts (often automatic thoughts e.g. ‘I feel lucky today therefore I will gamble),’ and devising a more realistic attitude through setting SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely) goals.

This will usually involve Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in tandem with our basic Twelve Step addiction recovery programme, stressing the therapeutic fundamentals of Honesty, Openness and Willingness to change.

We will also encourage practical measures where there can be no compromise – cancel credit cards, hand over control of finances to another person, self-exclude from casinos and betting sites, and strict limitations on the computer and phone use. Firm measures are needed to deal with such a powerful adversary.

For those entering treatment, it is often a painful wake-up call. But, it is also a life-changing opportunity where, unusually for them, everyone can be a winner.

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