Ever worry about your gambling?

a room with 5 white steps leading up to an orange-and-white striped life preserver against a dark background; concept is steps toward changing problem gambling

Are online gambling and sports betting new to your area? Are gambling advertisements catching your eye? Have you noticed sports and news shows covering the spread? Recent changes in laws have made gambling widely accessible, and its popularity has soared.

Occasional bets are rarely an issue. But uncontrolled gambling can lead to financial, psychological, physical, and social consequences, some of which are extreme. Understanding whether gambling is becoming a problem in your life can help you head off the worst of these issues and refocus on having more meaning, happiness, and psychological richness in your life. Gambling screening is a good first step.

Can you screen yourself for problem gambling?

Yes. Screening yourself is easy. The Brief Biosocial Gambling Screen (note: automatic download) is a validated way to screen for gambling disorder. It has three yes-or-no questions. Ask yourself:

  • During the past 12 months, have you become restless, irritable, or anxious when trying to stop/cut down on gambling?
  • During the past 12 months, have you tried to keep your family or friends from knowing how much you gambled?
  • During the past 12 months, did you have such financial trouble as a result of your gambling that you had to get help with living expenses from family, friends, or welfare?

What do your answers mean?

Answering yes to any one of these questions suggests that you are at higher risk for experiencing gambling disorder. Put simply, this is an addiction to gambling. Like other expressions of addiction, for gambling this includes loss of control, craving, and continuing despite bad consequences. Unique to gambling, it also often means chasing your losses.

A yes doesn’t mean that you are definitely experiencing a problem with gambling. But it might be valuable for you to seek a more in-depth assessment of your gambling behavior. To find an organization or person qualified to help, ask a health care provider, your local department of public health, or an advocacy group like the National Council on Problem Gambling.

Are you ready for change?

Your readiness to change a behavior matters when deciding the best first steps for making a change. If someone asks you whether you want to change your gambling, what would you say?

I never think about my gambling.

Sometimes I think about gambling less.

I have decided to gamble less.

I am already trying to cut back on my gambling.

I changed my gambling: I now do not gamble, or gamble less than before.

Depending on your answer, you might seek out different solutions. What’s most important initially is choosing a solution that feels like the right fit for you.

What if you don’t feel ready to change? If you haven’t thought about your gambling or only occasionally think about changing your gambling, you might explore lower intensity actions. For example, you could

  • read more about how gambling could create a problem for you
  • listen to stories of those who have lived experience with gambling disorder.

If you are committed to making a change or are already trying to change, you might seek out more engaging resources and strategies to support those decisions, like attending self-help groups or participating in treatment.

Read on for more details on choices you might make.

What options for change are available if you want to continue gambling?

If you want to keep gambling in some way, you might want to stick to lower-risk gambling guidelines:

  • gamble no more than 1% of household income
  • gamble no more than four days per month
  • avoid regularly gambling at more than two types of games, such as playing the lottery and betting on sports.

Other ways to reduce your risk of gambling harm include:

  • Plan ahead and set your own personal limits.
  • Keep your entertainment budget in mind if you decide to gamble.
  • Consider leaving credit cards and debit cards at home and use cash instead.
  • Schedule other activities directly after your gambling to create a time limit.
  • Limit your use of alcohol and other drugs if you decide to gamble.

What are easy first steps toward reducing or stopping gambling?

If you’re just starting to think about change, consider learning more about gambling, problem gambling, and ways to change from

  • blogs, like The BASIS
  • books like Change Your Gambling, Change Your Life
  • podcasts like After Gambling, All-In, and Fall In, which offer expert interviews, personal recovery stories, and more.

Some YouTube clips demystify gambling, such as how slot machines work, the limits of skill and knowledge in gambling, and how gambling can become an addiction. These sources might help you think about your own gambling in new ways, potentially identifying behaviors that you need to change.

What are some slightly more active steps toward change?

If you’re looking for a slightly more active approach, you can consider engaging in traditional self-help experiences such as helplines and chatlines or Gamblers Anonymous.

Another option is self-help workbooks. Your First Step to Change is a popular workbook that provides information about problem gambling, self-screening exercises for gambling and related conditions like anxiety and depression, and change exercises to get started. A clinical trial of this resource suggested that users were more likely than others to report having recently abstained from gambling.

Watch out for gambling misinformation

As you investigate options, keep in mind that the quality of information available can vary and may even include misinformation. Misinformation is incorrect or misleading information. Research suggests that some common types of gambling misinformation might reinforce harmful beliefs or risky behaviors.

For example, some gambling books, websites, and other resources exaggerate your likelihood of winning, highlight win and loss streaks as important (especially for chance-based games like slots), and suggest ways to change your luck to gain an edge. These misleading ideas can help you to believe you’re more likely to win than you actually are, and set you up for failure.

The bottom line

Taking a simple self-screening test can start you on a journey toward better gambling-related health. Keep in mind that change can take time and won’t necessarily be a straight path.

If you take a step toward change and then a step back, nothing is stopping you from taking a step forward again. Talking with a care provider and getting a comprehensive assessment can help you understand whether formal treatment for gambling is a promising option for you.

About the Author

photo of Debi LaPlante, PhD

Debi LaPlante, PhD, Contributor

Dr. Debi LaPlante is director of the division on addiction at the Cambridge Health Alliance, and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She joined the division in 2001 and is involved with its … See Full Bio View all posts by Debi LaPlante, PhD

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