What this might mean for gambling problems
This week, Governor Larry Hogan officially signed off on legislation to make Maryland the latest state to legalize in-person and mobile sports betting. Over the next few months, Marylanders can expect to be inundated with commercials! Companies such as DraftKings and FanDuel will vie for your sports betting with sexy, but sometimes misleading, promotions. They’ll promise $100 or “no risk” bets. Believe me, by the time football season kicks off, we’ll all have these commercials memorized, including kids and teens. Even those under 21 who are not yet able to gamble (legally) will be exposed to it like never before.
As various forms of gambling become more popular across the country, social stigma towards the activity is decreasing. This leads to more participation overall. With the ability to place a wager on your phone within seconds, there’s hardly any barrier at all between the thought of putting money down and the actual action of doing it. Of course, with greater accessibility and participation also comes an increased prevalence of gambling related problems. This can cause financial stress, relationship issues, and depression. And all of that can leads to well …more gambling related problems.
Have your fun, no judgment! Just know the risks of gambling problems.
As a form of entertainment, sports betting can add a little excitement to the experience of watching a game. Let’s face it, if our choices are between watching the Orioles in the summer and the Washington Football team in the winter, it makes sense that you might want to add a little extra spice on top of the game – to make things interesting, as they say.
If that’s what you enjoy doing and it’s legal for you to do so, by all means, get your thrill and entertainment however you like it. If you find that you’re not sports betting for the fun of it, but instead you’re placing bets to manage stress, cope with depression, make life-changing money, chase old loses, or to escape reality, it might be time to talk to a therapist.
Now, you’ve read this far and you might notice that there’s one word missing from this post – “addiction”. It’s true that gambling of any kind can produce dopamine which activates your brain’s reward pathway. And true, that this can cause you to become addicted. At that point, you might be seeking bigger thrills. You might be betting higher amounts of money or may end up spending every last penny you have. You may be thinking that if you make just one more bet, you’ll hit the big one. Gambling addiction is frequently paired with other addictions, such as alcohol addiction. Thiscan require intensive treatment and a long road towards restoring personal finances and living a fulfilling life. Fortunately, we can catch signs of a gambling problem ourselves or in our family members before it gets to the point of addiction.
With sports betting hitting the market, now more than ever, it’s important to know some of the warning signs when it turns from entertainment to a gambling problem.
5 Warning Signs of a Gambling Problem
1- You Bet Money You Can’t Afford to Lose
You should never expect to make life-changing money from sports betting. In fact, you shouldn’t expect to make money at all. You should expect to lose it. The entertainment comes from beating the odds and feeling like a million bucks, not making a million bucks. Since you should expect to lose, you should never wager more money than you’d spend on other forms of entertainment, like movies and dinner. If you recognize that you feel extreme guilt or regret after losing money, that’s a sign that you’re out of your comfort zone. Betting money that you can’t afford to lose can lead to secondary problems. This includes difficulty paying the bills, and other mental health problems, such as depression and thoughts of worthlessness.
2- You Lie to Family About the Amount You’re Betting
Think about why we lie about anything. We might be trying to avoid judgement or embarrassment. Or we might want to avoid disappointing others, or avoid consequences, or even to deny reality to ourselves. When we look at the internal motivation for lying, there usually comes a recognition that what we’re doing is not ok. If you find yourself lying about you’re betting, think about why it is you’re doing that. Maybe you internally recognize that you’re betting too much or too often.
3- You’re Gambling Just to Get Back Money You’ve Lost
Speaking of motivation, if you feel motivated to gamble to chase after old loses, that’s a sign that you might need to seek help right away. After we watch a movie in the theater, we would never go up to the ticket booth and expect them to hand us our money back. Once you’ve spent your money on entertainment, it’s gone. With sports betting, if you’re trying to go “double or nothing,” it’s not only a sign that you may have spent money that you couldn’t afford, but you’re risking falling into a deeper and deeper hole. More dangerously, if this method works out once or twice, you might convince yourself that it’s always going to work out and end up spending much more than you had ever intended.
4- You’re Gambling to Cope with Other Problems
Whenever we’re feeling anxious or depressed (or a range of other feelings), we look for methods to help us feel better. These methods are called coping mechanisms. These mechanisms can either be adaptative (meaning constructive and protective) or maladaptive (meaning problematic and destructive). Both of these types of coping mechanisms might make you feel better in the short term, but in the long term maladaptive coping behaviors tend to make things worse.
For example. Screaming at your boss might alleviate some anger for a moment. So that’s a coping mechanism… but it will probably lead to more problems in the future. Like getting fired. On the other hand, writing in a journal, practicing deep breathing, or going for a walk are all ways to feel better that won’t lead to negative consequences.
Similarly, we might have the urge to place an aggressive bet after we’ve had a bad day. In the short term, if might help us take our mind off things. And on a lucky night, you might win some money. But in the long term, gambling is a maladaptive coping mechanism because it will lead to more problems. Especially if you become dependent on the roller coaster of emotions it to make you feel better or distract you from your other problems.
5- You’re Gambling Underage
Parents listen up, this one’s for you!! The psychology behind gambling is so complex that some professionals spend their entire career researching the topic. If understanding this topic is so complicated for adults, think of how much more severe the impact of problem gambling can be on the rapidly developing brain of a teen.
Besides legal consequences, research has shown that underage gambling can lead to a lack of sleep, drastic stress, and mood swings. And these things can lead to a lifelong pattern of mental health concerns, including thoughts of suicide. It can also cause social and educational problems that come with consequences of their own. Research has shown that teenagers are less likely to gamble for the sake of winning money. They are more likely to pick it up through peer pressure or to escape from other life events. Underage gambling can also be a warning sign of other risky behaviors. An outlet like therapy might make a difference in improving several coexisting issues.
What can you do if you think you have a gambling problem?
These are not the only warning signs of problem gambling. And in the next few years, we’ll know even more as we begin to understand the impact of adding in mobile sports betting.
If you notice that these warning signs apply to you, your child, or someone else you know, there are ways to get help. Therapy can even help someone has already overcome gambling problems. Or someone who worries they might be at risk of developing a gambling problem.
In individual therapy, we can use techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy or motivational interviewing to help make changes for the better. If more intense support is needed, your therapist can help you consider inpatient treatment programs, support groups, and state resources.
Once the flood gates open and those sports betting commercials pop up everywhere, you might notice the small print at the bottom of the screen or that crazy fast voice who mumbles through some disclaimers like it’s a Viagra commercial. But do you know what’s written in that fine print that we’re supposed to just gloss over? Resources to help you!! We shouldn’t gloss over these! Instead we should make it more acceptable to know that help and hope exist.
About the Author
Alex Bleiweis, LMSW is a licensed social worker and Therapist at Montgomery County Counseling Center in Rockville and Olney, MD. He earned his Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Maryland School of Social Work in 2021, where he was named student of the Year. He training is rooted in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Among his many strengths, Alex specializes in treating young adults and professionals, career concerns, and process addictions such as gambling problems and technology addictions.