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The Connection between PTSD and Problem Gambling

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Updated September 28, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

People with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be at risk for developing a wide range of unhealthy behaviors, such as deliberate self-harm, eating disorder behavior (such as bingeing and purging), or substance abuse. It's believed that most of these behaviors develop as a way of coping with the intense thoughts and feelings that often accompany PTSD. One unhealthy behavior among people with PTSD that some researchers are beginning to explore further is problem gambling (also referred to as pathological gambling).

Pathological Gambling

So, what is pathological gambling? According to the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, pathological gambling is considered an impulse-control disorder. It includes the following symptoms:

  • A preoccupation with gambling.
  • A need to gamble with more and more money in order obtain a certain level of excitement.
  • Repeated efforts to stop or reduce gambling that are unsuccessful.
  • Feeling restless and irritable when trying to stop gambling.
  • Gambling in order to reduce distress or escape and forget about problems.
  • Continuing to gamble even when money is lost.
  • Lying to family members or other significant people so they don't know about your gambling.
  • Engaging in illegal acts to get money to gamble.
  • Lost a job, relationship, career, or similar opportunity because of gambling.
  • Relying on others to help out with finances that have been negatively impacted by gambling.

In order to be diagnosed with a gambling problem, a person must have five of the above symptoms. Studies have found that anywhere between 0.4 to 3.4% of the general population will have a problem with gambling at some point in their lives. But it appears as though certain groups of people may be more likely to develop a gambling problem, such as college students, people with a substance use problem, and people with PTSD.

Gambling in PTSD

Studies on people with gambling problems have found that anywhere between 12 to nearly 33 percent also have PTSD. In addition, people with gambling problems who also have PTSD are more likely to experience problems such as anxiety, depression, substance use, impulsivity, and they may even attempt suicide.

It's generally thought that people with PTSD may be more likely to gamble in order to escape from their problems or their symptoms of PTSD. Gambling may bring about some temporary relief or escape, and when a person is winning, it can also bring on a "high" that's similar to the reported high experienced by people who use substances. This high may be particularly desirable for someone with PTSD who is experiencing frequent and intense anxiety and other negative emotions; however, this relief is short-lived, and a person may quickly desire to gamble some more. More gambling tends to result in more financial loss, as well as the potential for greater despair.

Getting Help if You Have Problems Gambling and/or Have PTSD

Treatments for PTSD, as well as for gambling, are available; however, some people with PTSD and gambling problems may be less likely to pursue these treatments due to shame or denial. If you have PTSD and a problem with gambling, it's very important to get help. You can learn more about getting help for gambling from Gamblers Anonymous, as well as from the About.com Guide to Addictions.

Given the connection between PTSD and gambling, receiving treatment for PTSD may also help with your gambling problem (in addition to reducing your symptoms of PTSD). If you're looking for a PTSD treatment provider, there are a number of helpful websites that can help you find the right person. In seeking out a treatment provider, remember to be a consumer: shop around until you find someone that you feel can best address your needs.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th edition, text revision. Washington, DC: Author.

Biddle, D., Hawthorne, G., Forbes, D., & Coman, G. (2005). Problem gambling in Australian PTSD treatment-seeking veterans. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18, 759-767.

Ledgerwood, D.M., & Petry, N.M. (2006). Posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in treatment-seeking pathological gamblers. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 19, 411-416.

Najavits, L.M. (2011). Treatments for PTSD and pathological gambling: What do patients want? Journal of Gambling Studies, 27, 229-241.

Najavits, L.M., Meyer, T., Johnson, K.M., & Korn, D. (2011). Pathological gambling and posttraumatic stress disorder: A study of the comorbidity versus each alone. Journal of Gambling Studies, 27, 663-683.

Pulford, J., Bellringer, M., Abbott, M., Clarke, D., Hodgins, D., & Williams, J. (2008). Barriers to help-seeking for a gambling problem: The experiences of gamblers who have sought specialist assistance and the perceptions of those who have not. Journal of Gambling Studies, 25, 33-48.

Taber, J.I., McCormick, R.A., & Ramirez, L.F. (1987). The prevalence and impact of major life stressors among pathological gamblers. International Journal of the Addictions, 22, 71-79.

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