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Childhood Trauma And Gambling: A Hidden Addiction Of Millions

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Childhood Trauma And Gambling Addiction :


Research suggests that childhood trauma increases the likelihood of future addictions, including gambling. This gambling may become pathological. The types of childhood trauma that were experienced in pathological gamblers include violence, sexual abuse and loss. For instance, Jacobs (2008) conducted research demonstrating that childhood trauma greatly increased the risk of addictions in later life.

It has been hypothesized that gambling helps the individual cope with their childhood trauma through the psychological process known as DISSOCIATION (whilst intensely involved with gambling the individual ‘goes into another world’, blissfully disconnecting, for a time, from painful reality).

Pathological gambling is closely connected to impulse and control disorders; indeed, such disorders frequently express themselves in conditions linked to childhood trauma (such as borderline personality disorder). Pathological gambling may involve:

  • an overwhelming preoccupation with gambling
  • lying to others to cover up the extent of the gambling
  • trapped in a cycle of chasing losses after losing money
  • a failure to stop gambling even when the individual strongly wants to do so and it is causing distress and other problems
  • frequently increasing amount staked to increase the level of excitement
  • borrowing money from family and friends to gamble with or stealing money to gamble with
  • obsessive thinking about gambling
  • obsessive thinking about where to get the money to gamble with
  • using gambling as a form of ‘mental escape’ from life’s problems and to help manage distressing emotions


The profile of the pathological gambler is often a complicated one as the individual often suffers from an array of other psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety (Abbot et al., 1999).

Studies estimate that about 2% (although the figure varies somewhat from study to study) of the U.S. population suffers from pathological gambling.

Factors other than childhood trauma that make an individual more at risk of developing pathological gambling include:

– being male
– being young
– having other mental health problems

Polusny et al. (1995) suggested that addictive behaviors help the individual avoid both the memories of their childhood trauma together with the deeply painful feelings and emotions associated with it. Therefore, because activities such as gambling reduce the emotional distress connected with childhood trauma, the individual is driven to repeat the gambling experience again and again, due to the reward it provides of reducing psychological pain (this is technically known as negative reinforcement).

It is my contention that, on some level, the benefits of reducing psychological pain must outweigh the financial losses; as losses can be enormous this gives some indication of the level of psychological pain the individual is in and the strength of the internal drive to reduce it. Of course, this can only be helpful in short-term bursts and, overall, it goes without saying that the individual’s pain and suffering are compounded.



This model proposes that there is an underlying biological state (ie an abnormal resting arousal state) together with a psychological state which is painful for the individual (for example, by creating a feeling of unbearable anxiety) often caused by childhood trauma to which activities such as gambling provide an ‘escape route’ (temporarily). The individual becomes addicted to this short-term relief (although often he will not realize this is the fundamental reason he continues to gamble, the drive frequently being unconscious).

Addictions that alleviate extreme stress in this manner are known as MALADAPTIVE COPING STRATEGIES; they are, essentially, learned defenses against UNRESOLVED TRAUMA-RELATED ANXIETY (Henry, 1996).

Studies have revealed that up to 80% of pathological gamblers have suffered extreme childhood trauma. Further studies suggest that the more severe and protracted the trauma, the higher the risk is that the individual will develop pathological gambling behavior and the YOUNGER the individual will be when he starts to use gambling as a coping strategy. Indeed, I myself started playing fruit machines at the age of twelve (many places weren’t strict about the age of the person playing them in the late 1970s) and I can remember quite distinctly the pleasant relief it gave to my already depressed and anxious emotional state.

A study conducted by Bergevin et al., 2006 found that adolescents with a severe gambling problem had experienced more stressful and negative life events than adolescent social gamblers who, in turn, had experienced more stressful and negative life events than adolescent non-gamblers. The same study also found that those adolescents with a severe gambling problem tended to have less effective ways of coping with negative and stressful life events than those without a gambling problem and were more likely to rely upon avoidance-oriented coping rather than task-oriented coping. It seems reasonable to infer from this that the problem gamblers in this study were using gambling as a temporary ‘mental escape’ from unpleasant, stress-related feelings.


Most people are loss-averse. This means their concern about losing assets is greater than their desire to acquire gains. However, Benedetto De Martino carried out a study that suggests those with a damaged amygdala – and it is known that severe and protracted childhood trauma can damage the development of the amygdala – may be less loss-averse than others and therefore more likely to take risks. 



  • The brain chemical dopamine and the dopamine system play a key part in gambling addiction
  • The striatum is a crucial part of the brain’s reward circuit and also responds to food, sex, drugs
  • The pleasure circuit: is involved in both the anticipation of gambling and its outcomes
  • The nuclear accumbens is activated by near misses
  • The orbital frontal region of the brain, if damaged, can adversely affect judgment and risk-taking behavior
  • The hypothalamus is involved with emotions, motivation in relation to gambling behavior


Gambling can lead to devastating problems both physically and socially. Examples of these are provided below:

Social Problems That Gambling Can Lead To:

  • domestic violence
  • divorce/separation/marital conflict
  • serious financial problems
  • homelessness
  • criminal activity (e.g. stealing money or committing fraud to finance gambling habits)
  • loss of job/career
  • loss of friends (e.g. due to increasingly using them as a financial resource to fund gambling and failing to settle debts)
  • loss of bank account
  • loss of access to credit

Health Problems That Gambling Can Lead To:

  • depression
  • poor physical health
  • alcoholism
  • illicit drug addiction
  • suicide/suicide attempts
  • anxiety


It seems likely, then, that childhood trauma that remains unresolved is likely to elevate the risk of pathological gambling in individuals. When treating pathological gamblers, therefore, it is important to assess the degree of trauma the individual might have suffered and to consider appropriate psychological interventions which could be implemented to help the individual resolve the trauma. It is the psychological pain that underlies the compulsion to gamble which it is necessary to address.


According to Providence Projects, last year about 10 billion pounds were spent on gambling and it is currently estimated that only 5% of problem gamblers seek professional help, leaving 95% who do not. One reason for this may be the sense of shame being addicted to gambling can generate and a desire of addicts to hide their problems from others. It is, therefore, necessary to increase education about gambling addiction among the general public so that society becomes more open about it and less judgmental so that addicted gamblers find it easier to admit they need help and to seek that help out.



AFFILIATE LINK (see affiliate disclosure)

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PREVALENCE SURVEY. Report Number Six of the New Zealand Gaming Survey

Bergevin, Tanya & Gupta, Rina & Derevensky, Jeffrey & Kaufman, Felicia. (2006). Adolescent Gambling: Understanding the Role of Stress and Coping. Journal of gambling studies / co-sponsored by the National Council on Problem Gambling and Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming. 22. 195-208. 10.1007/s10899-006-9010-z.

Henry, S.L. Pathological gambling: Etiologic considerations and treatment efficacy of eye movement desensitization/reprocessing. J Gambling Stud 12, 395–405 (1996).

Jacobs, Reid, Larry. (2014). Journal of Addiction and Therapy Improving Treatment of Alcoholism by Using Evidence-based Practices and Computer-assisted Game-like Programs. 2015.

POLUSNY AND FOLLETTE. Applied & Preventive Psychology 4:143-166 (1995). Cambridge University Press. Printed in the USA. Long-term correlates of child sexual abuse:.Theory and review of the empirical literature. University of Nevada, Reno