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For millions of people, March is synonymous with March Madness, a time of year when recreational gambling can turn into a dangerous pastime. It is also National Problem Gambling Awareness month.

According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, about two million adults in the United States meet the criteria for “pathological gambling,” while another four to six million are considered to have mild or moderate gambling problems. Go here to read more about the definitions of problem gambling.

Sharon Burnom, director of substance use disorders for Pacific Clinics, says that even winning a moderate to large sum just one time can rewire the brain and trick the person into believing they will win every time.

Problem gambling also shares many of the consequences and warning signs as a substance use disorder.

“It’s the same as a drug addiction in that it affects every part of your life,” Burnom explains. “The person will lie, cheat and steal just the same as with a substance use disorder to fill the black hole that exists – and the wake of destruction looks the same.”

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most common modalities to treat clients with any type of addiction, including problem gambling.

“You have to… help them change the way they think in order to help them change the way they act. A 360-degree life change is required to heal,” she says, “including changing the people they associate with, the places they go and the things they do.”

“It takes baby steps and a lot of patience,” she says.

Burnom also recommends delegating a capable family member to temporarily take over finances, if at all possible, until the behavior is modified or resolved.

Here are important signs to look for associated with problem gambling:

  • Lying and stealing
  • Using gambling to regulate mood
  • Getting angry or restless when not able to gamble
  • Asking friends, family and coworkers for loans/money
  • Always trying to “get even with their losses”
  • Having trouble quitting gambling

To fellow providers, she recommends asking about gambling and lottery behaviors early in the process. “Everything starts at intake,” she says, and “it’s important because a lot of addicts switch between one form of addiction to another.”

If you or a loved one struggles with gambling, contact Pacific Clinics at 877-722-2737 (PC-CARES) or call the National Program Gambling Helpline at 1-800-522-4700.

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