Do you know what it’s like to look down at a stack of cards and think, Just one more hand … even though that’s what you told yourself an hour ago?

If so, then you probably already know the truth of John Milton Hay’s observation:

“True luck consists not in holding the best of the cards at the table; luckiest is he who knows just when to rise and go home.”

The problem for people with gambling addiction is that they lose that ability to know when to quit. They’ve lost the “off” switch for their behavior, and they don’t know how to get it back.

What is Gambling Addiction?

Gambling addiction is part of a broader category of behavioral addiction or process addiction. In basic terms, behavioral addiction means that you’re bound to a particular rewarding behavior (such as gambling), and you persist in that behavior regardless of harmful consequences.

Compulsive gambling involves an uncontrollable urge to continue rolling dice and placing bets despite the toll it takes on your life.

Gambling itself can take many different forms, including:

  • Purchasing lottery tickets
  • Playing card games
  • Playing electronic games (such as online slots or poker)
  • Playing other casino games such as roulette, dice games, or slot machines
  • Placing bets on various sporting events

Many of these behaviors are no problem in moderation, but when they become compulsive, they are major roadblocks to health and happiness.

Types of Gamblers

Furthermore, gambling addiction itself can be subdivided into distinct categories. According to Dr. Robert Custer, there are six distinct types of gamblers:

  • Professional gamblers
  • Antisocial gamblers
  • Casual social gamblers
  • Serious social gamblers
  • Relief and escape gamblers
  • Compulsive gamblers

For the purposes of this article, we’re focusing in on relief and escape gamblers, as well as compulsive gamblers. These are the people who are trying to use gambling to keep a lid on feelings that seem unmanageable.

What Drives Gambling Addiction?

As the co-founder of a non 12-step rehab specializing in dual diagnosis, I work with people with addictive behaviors all of the time. Often our participants come to us with both substance abuse and process addictions; there is significant overlap.

That said, I can also sum up everything I know about addiction in five words: It isn’t about the substances! Instead, it’s about the underlying core issues that drive the drug use.

Underlying core issues include hopelessness, despair, depression, anxiety, trauma, and other mental and emotional concerns that fuel addictive behavior.

From my perspective, the major mental and emotional health issues driving gambling addiction are as follows:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem

Let’s unpack each one of those in detail, as they’ll give us a road map for recovery.

How to Heal from Gambling Addiction


What is depression? Depression is anger turned inward.

That’s right: what you think of as stifling hopelessness, ennui, or despair is actually the result of anger turned against yourself.

We begin to work with depression by addressing the anger that precipitates it. One great way to do this is with a technique called “Free Form Writing.”

This is an accessible exercise, one that you can do anywhere that you have about 10 to 15 minutes of privacy. Just grab a pen and paper and begin to write.

If you want a prompt, try this: “I’m angry about …”

Then fill in the blank.

You can say anything you like, just keep your pen moving for at least 10 minutes. Don’t censor yourself or hold back; these words are for you alone.

At the end of the allotted time, don’t pause to reread; instead destroy the paper. Burning it is best, but you can also shred it. You’ll be surprised by how much this straightforward exercise can free you up to feel what you feel.


Anxiety is the ungrounded feeling of your energy bouncing off of the internal walls you’ve set up around your emotions.

When you refuse to feel your hurt and anger, your energy gets blocked, and that ping-pong feeling is what we call anxiety. (Panic is simply amped-up anxiety, an acceleration of the ping-pong!)

As such, we work with anxiety by dismantling those internal walls around your emotions. One great way to do this is to start expressing your “forbidden” feelings.

You can use the free-form writing technique described above, or find a safe person such as a therapist and start to express the off-limits parts of your psyche. This is an opportunity to share deep emotions and to begin healing.

For a more detailed explanation of how depression and anxiety interact and feed into one another, check out our post on anger and addiction.

Low Self-Esteem

Low self-esteem happens when you allow your negative thoughts to run rampant and unchecked through your brain. Life coach Brooke Castillo describes it in these vivid terms:

“If you aren’t aware of the 60,000 thoughts that are going through your head every day, it’s like your brain is a toddler with a knife running through there. There is nothing more frightening for a life than an unsupervised mind.”

Unless you set the intention to do otherwise, you will experience thousands of negative thoughts each day. But there is a way out!

To work with low-self esteem, you can use affirmations. These positive thoughts retrain your brain, giving you a chance to rewire your automatic negative thought patterns.

Check out The Power of Positive Affirmations for more detailed instructions on how to get started!

Conclusion: Put the Pieces Back Together

In the words of writer Hunter S. Thompson, “Gambling can turn into a dangerous two-way street when you least expect it. Weird things happen suddenly, and your life can go all to pieces.”

The good news is that when you know how to heal your underlying core issues, you can pick up those pieces and build a new – and better – life for yourself.

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