How to Stop Gambling and Regain Control of Your Life
It can happen to anyone from any walk of life: Your gambling goes from a fun, harmless diversion to an unhealthy obsession with serious consequences. Whether you bet on sports, scratch cards, roulette, poker, or slots—in a casino, at the track, or online—a gambling problem can strain your relationships, interfere with work, and lead to financial disaster. You may even do things you never thought you would, like running up huge debts or even stealing money to gamble. Although it can feel like you’re unable to stop, there are plenty of things you can do to overcome a gambling problem, repair your relationships and finances, and finally regain control of your life.
Table of contents
- 1 What is gambling addiction and problem gambling?
- 2 Gambling addiction signs and symptoms
- 3 Self-help for gambling problems
- 4 How to stop gambling for good
- 5 Dealing with gambling cravings
- 6 Gambling addiction treatment
- 7 How to help someone stop gambling
- 8 Community Q&A
- 9 SMART Recovery ®: Self-Help for Independence from Problem Gambling
- 10 Change your thinking, change your gambling problem
- 11 What do addictions have in common?
- 12 How do you change your thinking about gambling?
- 13 Studies that support this method
What is gambling addiction and problem gambling?
Gambling addiction—also known as—pathological gambling, compulsive gambling or gambling disorder—is an impulse-control disorder. If you’re a compulsive gambler, you can’t control the impulse to gamble, even when it has negative consequences for you or your loved ones. You’ll gamble whether you’re up or down, broke or flush, and you’ll keep gambling regardless of the consequences—even when you know that the odds are against you or you can’t afford to lose.
Of course, you can also have a gambling problem without being totally out of control. Problem gambling is any gambling behavior that disrupts your life. If you’re preoccupied with gambling, spending more and more time and money on it, chasing losses, or gambling despite serious consequences in your life, you have a gambling problem.
A gambling addiction or problem is often associated with other behavior or mood disorders. Many problem gamblers also suffer with substance abuse issues, unmanaged ADHD, stress, depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. To overcome your gambling problems, you’ll also need to address these and any other underlying causes as well. The first step is to separate the myths from the facts about gambling problems:
|Myths & Facts about Gambling Problems|
Myth: You have to gamble every day to be a problem gambler. Fact: A problem gambler may gamble frequently or infrequently. Gambling is a problem if it causes problems.
Myth: Problem gambling is not really a problem if the gambler can afford it. Fact: Problems caused by excessive gambling are not just financial. Too much time spent on gambling can also lead to relationship and legal problems, job loss, mental health problems including depression and anxiety, and even suicide.
Myth: Having a gambling problem is just a case of being weak-willed, irresponsible, or unintelligent. Fact: Gambling problems affect people of all levels of intelligence and all backgrounds. Previously responsible and strong-willed people are just as likely to develop a gambling problem as anyone else.
Myth: Partners of problem gamblers often drive their loved ones to gamble. Fact: Problem gamblers often try to rationalize their behavior. Blaming others is one way to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, including what is needed to overcome the problem.
Myth: If a problem gambler builds up a debt, you should help them take care of it. Fact: Quick fix solutions may appear to be the right thing to do. However, bailing the gambler out of debt may actually make matters worse by enabling their gambling problems to continue.
Gambling addiction signs and symptoms
Gambling addiction is sometimes referred to as a “hidden illness” because there are no obvious physical signs or symptoms like there are in drug or alcohol addiction. Problem gamblers also typically deny or minimize the problem—even to themselves. However, you may have a gambling problem if you:
Feel the need to be secretive about your gambling. You might gamble in secret or lie about how much you gamble, feeling others won’t understand or that you will surprise them with a big win.
Have trouble controlling your gambling. Once you start gambling, can you walk away? Or are you compelled to gamble until you’ve spent your last dollar, upping your bets in a bid to win lost money back?
Gamble even when you don’t have the money. You may gamble until you’ve spent your last dollar, and then move on to money you don’t have—money to pay bills, credit cards, or things for your children. You may feel pushed to borrow, sell, or even steal things for gambling money.
Have family and friends worried about you. Denial keeps problem gambling going. If friends and family are worried, listen to them carefully. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help. Many older gamblers are reluctant to reach out to their adult children if they’ve gambled away their inheritance, but it’s never too late to make changes for the better.
Self-help for gambling problems
The biggest step to overcoming a gambling addiction is realizing that you have a problem. It takes tremendous strength and courage to own up to this, especially if you have lost a lot of money and strained or broken relationships along the way. Don’t despair, and don’t try to go it alone. Many others have been in your shoes and have been able to break the habit and rebuild their lives. You can, too.
Learn to relieve unpleasant feelings in healthier ways. Do you gamble when you’re lonely or bored? Or after a stressful day at work or following an argument with your spouse? Gambling may be a way to self-soothe unpleasant emotions, unwind, or socialize. But there are healthier and more effective ways of managing your moods and relieving boredom, such as exercising, spending time with friends who don’t gamble, taking up new hobbies, or practicing relaxation techniques.
Strengthen your support network. It’s tough to battle any addiction without support, so reach out to friends and family. If your support network is limited, there are ways to make new friends without relying on visiting casinos or gambling online. Try reaching out to colleagues at work, joining a sports team or book club, enrolling in an education class, or volunteering for a good cause.
Join a peer support group. Gamblers Anonymous, for example, is a twelve-step recovery program patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous. A key part of the program is finding a sponsor, a former gambler who has experience remaining free from addiction and can provide you invaluable guidance and support.
Seek help for underlying mood disorders. Depression, stress, substance abuse, or anxiety can both trigger gambling problems and be made worse by compulsive gambling. Even when gambling is no longer a part of your life, these problems will still remain, so it’s important to address them.
How to stop gambling for good
For many problem gamblers, it’s not quitting gambling that’s the biggest challenge, but rather staying in recovery—making a permanent commitment to stay away from gambling. The Internet has made gambling far more accessible and, therefore, harder for recovering addicts to avoid relapse. Online casinos and bookmakers are open all day, every day for anyone with a smartphone or access to a computer. But maintaining recovery from gambling addiction or problem gambling is still possible if you surround yourself with people to whom you’re accountable, avoid tempting environments and websites, give up control of your finances (at least at first), and find healthier activities to replace gambling in your life.
Making healthier choices
One way to stop gambling is to remove the elements necessary for gambling to occur in your life and replace them with healthier choices. The four elements needed for gambling to continue are:
A decision: For gambling to happen, you need to make the decision to gamble. If you have an urge: stop what you are doing and call someone, think about the consequences to your actions, tell yourself to stop thinking about gambling, and find something else to do immediately.
Money: Gambling cannot occur without money. Get rid of your credit cards, let someone else be in charge of your money, have the bank make automatic payments for you, close online betting accounts, and keep only a limited amount of cash on you.
Time: Even online gambling cannot occur if you don’t have the time. Schedule enjoyable recreational time for yourself that has nothing to do with gambling. If you’re gambling on your smartphone, find other ways to fill the quiet moments during your day.
A game: Without a game or activity to bet on there is no opportunity to gamble. Don’t put yourself in tempting environments. Tell gambling establishments you frequent that you have a gambling problem and ask them to restrict you from entering. Remove gambling apps and block gambling sites on your smartphone and computer.
Finding alternatives to gambling
Maintaining recovery from gambling addiction depends a lot on finding alternative behaviors you can substitute for gambling. Some examples include:
|Reason for gambling||Sample substitute behaviors|
|To provide excitement, get a rush of adrenaline||Sport or a challenging hobby, such as mountain biking, rock climbing, or Go Kart racing|
|To be more social, overcome shyness or isolation||Counseling, enroll in a public speaking class, join a social group, connect with family and friends, volunteer, find new friends|
|To numb unpleasant feelings, not think about problems||Try therapy or use HelpGuide’s free Emotional Intelligence toolkit|
|Boredom or loneliness||Find something you’re passionate about such as art, music, sports, or books and then find others with the same interests|
|To relax after a stressful day||As little as 15 minutes of daily exercise can relieve stress. Or deep breathing, meditation, or massage|
|To solve money problems||The odds are always stacked against you so it’s far better to seek help with debts from a credit counselor|
Dealing with gambling cravings
Feeling the urge to gamble is normal, but as you build healthier choices and a strong support network, resisting cravings will become easier. When a gambling craving strikes:
Avoid isolation. Call a trusted family member, meet a friend for coffee, or go to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting.
Postpone gambling. Tell yourself that you’ll wait 5 minutes, fifteen minutes, or an hour. As you wait, the urge to gamble may pass or become weak enough to resist.
Visualize what will happen if you give in to the urge to gamble. Think about how you’ll feel after all your money is gone and you’ve disappointed yourself and your family again.
Distract yourself with another activity, such as going to the gym, watching a movie, or practicing a relaxation exercise for gambling cravings.
Coping with lapses
If you aren’t able to resist the gambling craving, don’t be too hard on yourself or use it as an excuse to give up. Overcoming a gambling addiction is a tough process. You may slip from time to time; the important thing is to learn from your mistakes and continue working towards recovery.
Gambling addiction treatment
Overcoming a gambling problem is never easy and seeking professional treatment doesn’t mean that you’re weak in some way or can’t handle your problems. But it’s important to remember that every gambler is unique so you need a recovery program tailored specifically to your needs and situation. Talk to your doctor or mental health professional about different treatment options, including:
Inpatient or residential treatment and rehab programs. These are aimed at those with severe gambling addiction who are unable to avoid gambling without round-the-clock support.
Treatment for underlying conditions contributing to your compulsive gambling, including substance abuse or mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, OCD, or ADHD. This could include therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes. Problem gambling can sometimes be a symptom of bipolar disorder, so your doctor or therapist may need to rule this out before making a diagnosis.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy. CBT for gambling addiction focuses on changing unhealthy gambling behaviors and thoughts, such as rationalizations and false beliefs. It can also teach you how to fight gambling urges and solve financial, work, and relationship problems caused by problem gambling. Therapy can provide you with the tools for coping with your addiction that will last a lifetime.
Family therapy and marriage, career, and credit counseling. These can help you work through the specific issues that have been created by your problem gambling and lay the foundation for repairing your relationships and finances.
How to help someone stop gambling
If your loved one has a gambling problem, you likely have many conflicting emotions. You may have spent a lot of time and energy trying to keep your loved one from gambling or having to cover for them. At the same time, you might be furious at your loved one for gambling again and tired of trying to keep up the charade. Your loved one may have borrowed or even stolen money with no way to pay it back. They may have sold family possessions or run up huge debts on joint credit cards.
While compulsive and problem gamblers need the support of their family and friends to help them in their struggle to stop gambling, the decision to quit has to be theirs. As much as you may want to, and as hard as it is seeing the effects, you cannot make someone stop gambling. However, you can encourage them to seek help, support them in their efforts, protect yourself, and take any talk of suicide seriously.
Preventing suicide in problem gamblers
When faced with the consequences of their actions, problem gamblers can suffer a crushing drop in self-esteem. This is one reason why there is a high rate of suicide among compulsive gamblers. If you suspect your loved one is feeling suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S. at 1-800-273-8255 or visit Befrienders Worldwide to find a suicide helpline in your country.
Four tips for family members:
- Start by helping yourself. You have a right to protect yourself emotionally and financially. Don’t blame yourself for the gambler’s problems or let his or her addiction dominate your life. Ignoring your own needs can be a recipe for burnout.
- Don’t go it alone. It can feel so overwhelming coping with a loved one’s gambling addiction that it may seem easier to rationalize their requests “this one last time.” Or you might feel ashamed, feeling like you are the only one who has problems like this. Reaching out for support will make you realize that many families have struggled with this problem.
- Set boundaries in managing money. To ensure the gambler stays accountable and to prevent relapse, consider taking over the family finances. However, this does not mean you are responsible for micromanaging the problem gambler’s impulses to gamble. Your first responsibilities are to ensure that your own finances and credit are not at risk.
- Consider how you will handle requests for money. Problem gamblers often become very good at asking for money, either directly or indirectly. They may use pleading, manipulation, or even threats to get it. It takes practice to ensure you are not enabling your loved one’s gambling addiction.
|Do’s and Don’ts for partners of problem gamblers|
|Source: Dept. of Health & Addiction Services|
This article was co-authored by
Trudi Griffin, LPC
. Trudi Griffin is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Wisconsin. She received her MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Marquette University in 2011.
There are 14 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page.
In this Article:Fighting the Urge to GambleAdopting New PastimesGetting Professional HelpCommunity Q&A14 References
Hedging your bets on a card game or at the horse track may feel exhilarating, but this habit can compromise your financial stability and even ruin your relationships. You can free yourself from your gambling habit by holding yourself accountable and putting measures in place to reduce the time and money you dedicate to gambling. Then, think outside the box to find healthier replacement activities. Before you know it, you’ll have kicked the habit and be relieved about all your newfound time and money.
Method 1 Fighting the Urge to Gamble
- List reasons why you need to stop gambling.
To stop gambling requires you to reach a conclusion: that your life will be improved by quitting. Write down your reasons for wanting to stop and review them when the urge strikes. Good reasons to stop might be to free up to start spending that time with your children, to get out of debt, or to save your marriage or relationships.
- Postpone the urge for 15 minutes.
Put off your gambling for a short time whenever you get the temptation. Tell yourself you can do it after 15 minutes. In the meantime, distract yourself by playing a game on your phone or watching TV. Once your delay period ends, the urge will likely have passed.
- If you still have the urge to gamble after the time elapsed, set a new 15-minute delay. Over time, you will get better at controlling your urge to gamble.
- Call someone for support and accountability.
Instead of giving in to the urge, reach out to a loved one. Ask this person to distract you or remind you why gambling is not a good idea. Say, “I’m trying to stop gambling. Will you help hold me accountable?”
- You might designate a few people to hold you accountable. Agree on times when you can contact them for support, so you’re not intruding on any one person’s life too much.
- If you’d prefer not to involve your loved ones too much and you’d like alternative ideas on how to get support and hold yourself accountable, go to
- Put someone else in charge of your money for a while.
Prevent yourself from being able to gamble by letting go of your financial reins. Have a partner, parent, or close friend control your finances until you get a handle on your gambling problem.
- This might involve them setting up automatic drafts to pay your bills and blocking any spending to gambling sites or establishments.
- Block websites or apps related to gambling.
Limit your access to gambling opportunities by deleting the apps and blocking the websites you typically frequent. It may be a good idea to stay away from forums or social media groups where you can interact with other gamblers, too.
- To block sites on your computer, you will need to compile a list of URLs. You must also have administrative privileges on the computer in order to add blocked sites to your local C drive block list.
- Steer clear of gambling establishments.
Stop visiting all casinos, tracks, and any other environments that cater to gambling. If you don’t trust yourself to stay away, tell the operators that you have a problem with gambling and ask them restrict your entry.
- Many gambling establishments have a 1-800 number that you can call to have your name added to a restricted entry list. This will also stop you from receiving email and snail mail advertisements.
Stay away from friends and family members who gamble. If you tend to gamble socially, it’ll be much easier to stop if you stop associating with those who you typically gamble with. Especially if they aren’t trying to stop, spending time with these people can quickly lead to temptation. Spend your time with friends and family members who aren’t interested in gambling to keep it off your mind as much as possible.
Method 2 Adopting New Pastimes
- Spend free time with family and friends.
If you gamble often, there’s probably someone in your life feeling neglected. Use your newfound time to cultivating your relationships with family members and close friends.
- During the time you would normally spend gambling, plan a date with your spouse, a movie night with your kids, or a hike with your pals.
- Do physical activities that give you a rush.
If the exhilaration makes you gamble, find healthy behaviors that are just as exciting. Consider sports like running, playing basketball, or rock climbing. Challenge yourself with new
routines such as weight-lifting or high-intensity interval training.
- The upside to this approach is that you will experience an endorphin rush while also supporting your health and wellness.
- Pick up an old hobby to cope with boredom.
Did you once enjoy an activity, but stopped doing it? If so, rekindle your neglected passions to keep yourself busy during your free time. Fill your hours with constructive hobbies like gardening, painting, writing, sailing, or restoring furniture.
- Use your hobbies to connect with others by joining local clubs or organizations. Doing this can help you link up with people who aren’t connected to gambling, especially if many of your old friends still gamble.
- If you don’t want to get back into an old hobby, consider getting into a new one. Try something new that you’ve never tried before, as this may challenge and stimulate you.
- Fight stress with relaxation exercises.
Your tendency to gamble may have developed from a need to escape everyday life stress. Rather than placing bets, start doing relaxation techniques like
, yoga, or
progressive muscle relaxation
- Doing these exercises daily can help you keep stress at bay.
- Commit your money to a good cause.
Think of creative and meaningful ways to use your money for a more important reason than gambling. Set up automatic drafts from your paycheck to ensure your extra money goes to savings or investments.
- For example, you might save or invest for an exciting vacation, your retirement, or your kid’s education.
Method 3 Getting Professional Help
- See a trained addiction specialist.
If you have a compulsive need to gamble and find that quitting on your own is too difficult, see a professional. Problem gambling may be classified as an addiction, so you may benefit from seeing an addiction counselor.
- Locate an addiction counselor in your area by visiting the counselor directory on the National Council on Problem gambling website at:
- In therapy, you can change thought patterns that drive you to gamble and learn how to cope with urges.
- Take medication to address underlying issues.
Gambling may be serving as a numbing agent for other problems, like anxiety, depression, and impulse control disorders. Certain medications may help ease symptoms and empower you to make better choices. Talk to your doctor to determine if medications are right for you.
- Join a support group.
A 12-step support group like Gamblers Anonymous can provide the accountability, structure, and encouragement you need to successfully stop gambling. Look for groups in your area and commit to attending meetings as often as you can.
- Visit the Gamblers Anonymous website to find groups in your area:
- Access resources that help you stop gambling.
The National Council on Problem Gambling website is a trusted source for overcoming your gambling habit. On the site, learn about inpatient and outpatient programs dedicated to problem gambling and find treatment centers in your area.
- To learn more, go to
- If you need immediate assistance and are in the United States or Canada, call the NCAP helpline at 1-800-522-4700.
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SMART Recovery ®: Self-Help for Independence from Problem Gambling
By Rich Dowling, MA, LPC, MAC
Are you finding yourself asking, “Why do I gamble so much? And how can I stop?” You are not alone.
Compulsive gambling and pathological gambling are growing problems in the United States. Casinos, lotteries, and the availability of bookies are easier, faster, and more widespread. Internet gambling impact reaches far and wide. The good news is that Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) based Professional Treatment and Self-Help models such as SMART Recovery
(Self-Management and Recovery Training) can be very helpful for gaining independence from addictions, including problem gambling.
Change your thinking, change your gambling problem
SMART Recovery is an abstinence based, self-reliance model founded on the idea that people generally feel and behave the way they think, with thinking being the one thing over which humans have most control. Therefore, with determination and persistence, people can change the way they feel and behave by changing their thinking. The mission of SMART Recovery is to assist individuals with their desire to gain independence from addictions in general through a change in their thinking about activities such as problem gambling, the common theme in addictive behavior being “irrational beliefs” (iBs).
What do addictions have in common?
I have facilitated SMART Recovery meetings attended by individuals desiring to gain independence from various problematic behaviors involving alcohol and other drugs, eating disorders and problem gambling. Some people have expressed concern they could not relate to the other issues only to find, as the meeting progressed, there was indeed common ground, resulting in similar emotional distress. Anxiety, depression, anger, guilt and shame are common “unhealthy emotions” experienced by people addicted to one or more substances and or activities.
How do you change your thinking about gambling?
The “ABCs” of REBT (rebtorg) method of solving problems (listed below as part of SMART’s 4 Point Program) is used as an effective formula for enhancing emotions and changing behavior. SMART Recovery’s 4-Point Program® offers scientifically based tools and techniques to assist an individual with:
1. Enhancing motivation to abstain from offending substances and problematic behaviors
2. Coping with urges without acting on them
3. Solving problems in a reasonable way (using ABCs of REBT)
4. Balancing immediate desires and long-term goals. (See SMART Recovery website)
One tool in particular that relates to addictive activities (offered in The SMART Recovery Handbook) is the Cost/Benefit Analysis (CBA) Worksheet. The CBA can enhance an individual’s motivation to reduce problem behaviors by encouraging them to list the benefits of “Doing or Using;” the negative consequences of “Doing or Using;” the benefits of “NOT Doing or Using;” and the negative consequences of “NOT Doing or Using.”
One unique aspect of SMART Recovery is the individual is not “labeled” as an “Addict,” “Criminal,” or “Compulsive Gambler;” rather, it is the specific behavior that is identified with statements such as: The individual has committed a crime or gambles compulsively. So in reality, SMART Recovery is an empowerment program, encouraging participants to rate and judge individual behaviors, characteristics and experiences rather than their whole “being and essence” while having a sense of self-worth …simply by the fact they exist. This approach lessens the possibility of the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Studies that support this method
SMART Recovery’s potential effectiveness for assisting individuals to find relief from addictions including compulsive/pathological gambling is supported by research. While attending the National Center for Responsible Gambling Conference, co-sponsored by Harvard Medical School’s Division on Addictions and the Gaming Industry, I was introduced to research clearly showing CBT to be an effective model for assisting individuals interested in reducing problem gambling. Studies also show a correlation between alcohol, nicotine and other drugs, as well as gambling. Problematic gambling can also lead to more destructive actions such as criminal behavior (i.e., embezzlement) and, possibly, suicide.
If you have a problem with gambling or any other addiction, check out SMART Recovery, consider obtaining a SMART Recovery Handbook, attending a community group available in your area, or sit in on an Online SMART Recovery Group. Or contact SMART Recovery headquarters with questions, comments or to get assistance with starting a SMART Recovery Group.
Rich Dowling is a founding board member and Volunteer Advisor for SMART Recovery. He is owner of The Thought Exchange: Center for Personal Achievment, specializing in assisting individuals gain independence from addictions and create a healthier, happier, more satisfying lifestyle. Change Your Thinking, Enhance Your Life! ®