The Link Between Gambling and Substance Use Disorder: A Guide for Individuals and Families

Andrew McKenna - Expert Content Editor

Updated: 10/16/2023

Gambling addiction affects one percent of the American population, representing millions of people who are struggling. At the same time, substance use disorder affects over 46 million people across the United States. Data indicates that 75 percent of individuals with gambling issues also struggle with alcohol use disorder and 40 percent struggle with drug use.

It’s no surprise that these conditions overlap for so many people. Many of the behaviors, traumas, rationalizations, thought patterns, and neurochemistry that contribute to problematic gambling also lead to sustained substance use disorder.

The relationships between gambling addiction and substance use disorder is complex, interconnected, and different for everyone. Understanding the triggers, signs, and impact can help you or your loved one overcome both of these conditions.

Co-Occurring Gambling and SUD: How Does It Start?

The link between gambling addiction and substance abuse is very much a “chicken-or-egg” situation. On one hand, many develop alcohol or prescription drug abuse because of the negative impact of their gambling addiction, which can often include depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other adverse mental health conditions. These in turn, often lead to problematic drinking and abuse of medications like benzodiazepines and antidepressants.

On the other hand, gambling addiction can also start as a behavioral indicator of addiction and quickly develop into an addiction of its own. As their substance abuse worsens, a person will financially prioritize alcohol or drugs more and more. This often continues until they have to resort to high-risk behaviors like gambling or theft. As time goes on, and gambling persists, it can become more and more of a priority until it disrupts and impacts quality of life.

What Are the Signs Gambling Addiction?

Some of the more common behavioral signs of gambling addiction include:

  • Constant preoccupation with gambling (table games, cards, etc.) and fixation on gambling-related activities.
  • Gambling higher and higher amounts to get the same “rush” or thrill.
  • Erratic and unpredictable spending patterns and financial instability.
  • Trying but failing to gamble less because of impulse.
  • Gambling as “therapy” to ease stress or emotional problems.
  • Being angry or irritable when not gambling.
  • Impact on your job, relationships, friendships, and other areas of your life due to gambling.
  • Chasing gambling losses.
  • Borrowing or stealing money to gamble more or cover existing gambling debts.
  • Needing financial help because of gambling and related behavior.

The line between addiction and normal gambling can get blurred depending on each person’s case. Stay vigilant of these signs in order to identify a problem.

Shared Symptoms of SUD and Gambling Addiction

Whether they emerge independently or as a result of one another, gambling and SUD can often have some of the same behavioral indicators and lifestyle impact, including but not limited to:

  • Increasingly high-risk behavior regardless of consequences.
  • Lying to or manipulating family and friends.
  • Irritability and anger when challenged or deprived.
  • Legal, financial, and lifestyle problems associated with addiction.

If you or your loved one are experiencing these or any other symptoms related to gambling, SUD, or any other serious mental health issue, seek treatment immediately.

Treating Gambling Addiction and Substance Use Disorder

While the health stakes of substance use disorder are obviously more urgent than those of gambling addiction, both addictions should be treated simultaneously to aid in holistic recovery. More and more treatment centers are offering outpatient, inpatient, and virtual treatment for both gambling and substance use disorder, and many can fold them into the same treatment program to help you heal from both conditions. Although you can get help for both, each condition must be treated on their own and require their own specialized clinical focus.

Treatment for substance use disorder will often require medically supervised detoxification to help with the withdrawal process, followed by comprehensive behavioral rehab. While gambling addiction will not require any medical component, it will require a strong and behavioral health element.

Some of the therapies that can help for both substance use disorder and gambling include but are not limited to:

There is no specific FDA-approved medication for gambling disorder, which is why behavioral therapy and robust relapse-prevention resources are the best tools for treatment and recovery.

Gambling Addiction Is Not “Harmless”

While there is no risk of overdose or physical withdrawal symptoms, gambling addiction can have significant mental health and lifestyle ramifications, including depression, poverty, anxiety, family estrangement, destruction of credit and financial stability, and even homelessness. Treatment will help you address the root causes and sustaining factors associated with your gambling and substance abuse and how they impact one another. If you or someone you care about is battling gambling addiction, substance use disorder or both, get help now to explore their relationship and how you can overcome both.

Resources for Gambling Addiction

There are also gambling addiction resources in every state to help you or your loved one find treatment and recovery.