Idaho, Iowa, Des Moines
April 1, 2023

ADHD and Gambling: Why You Struggle, and What to Do About It

For people with ADHD, phones can be a huge contributing factor to feeling even more distracted, scattered, and disorganized.

We’ve all been there: you sit down to accomplish some task or get a chunk of work done, but then you pick up your phone – just for a second, you tell yourself – and start scrolling instead. Before you know it, hours have gone by and you’ve gotten lost in the jumble of news, reels, and unanswered emails. 

But it isn’t just the notifications, dings, and social media apps on phones that can be distracting and time-consuming. I’m a therapist for millennials with ADHD and anxiety, and I’m seeing more and more clients who struggle with online gambling. As it turns out, there’s a link between ADHD and gambling.

Mobile gambling, just like traditional gambling, enables people to bet real money on gambling apps in an attempt to win prizes or jackpots. Online casino games and poker rooms allow you to feel like you’re at a real casino – even though you’re at home on your couch.

But mobile gambling can be a big problem for people with ADHD. Not only can it be addicting, but it can also be dangerous and put you at risk for serious financial losses. So here’s what you need to know about ADHD and gambling – and how to rein in a gambling problem. 

Gambling and ADHD

What’s the Link Between ADHD and Gambling?

If you find yourself drawn to online gambling and you have ADHD, you’re not alone – in fact, you’re in good company. Some studies have found that up to 20% of people with a gambling disorder also have ADHD. 

In plain English, this means that if you have ADHD, you may be statistically likely to develop a gambling problem.

Not everyone who has ADHD chooses to engage with gambling or is interested in gambling, of course. But many other folks with ADHD find gambling quite addictive – in large part due to the dopamine hits gambling provides.

ADHD brains don’t produce as much of the neurotransmitter dopamine as neurotypical brains do. This chemical is responsible for pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. It’s also produced when you’ve been rewarded in some way.

Dopamine feels good. And as a result of having less dopamine in their brains, folks with ADHD often go to great lengths to get more of it. Scrolling on your phone or playing video games are both common ways to increase short-term dopamine production in your brain. Other ways of producing dopamine, such as binge eating, may seem more surprising to some people but are nevertheless quite common. 

However, just because someone uses binge eating or social media scrolling to produce dopamine doesn’t mean those things are healthy or sustainable. Such coping mechanisms, while feeling good at the moment, can be harmful and feel shitty in the long term. They can negatively impact mental and physical health, and produce a lot of shame, anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Gambling is no different. It’s an effective way to increase dopamine in the short term. But in the long term, it can result in addiction, financial losses, and even the loss of jobs or relationships.

What Makes Gambling So Addictive For People With ADHD?

The trick behind what makes gambling so addictive – particularly for folks with ADHD – is that it’s based on an intermittent reward system. This means a reward is delivered at irregular intervals, rather than predictable or continuous intervals.

As it turns out, intermittent reward systems are extremely addictive. The reward intervals are seemingly random, which increases the anticipation and excitement around winning. It feels like a reward is always just around the corner. As a result, people who are faced with unpredictable rewards will try harder and more frequently to earn those rewards.

On top of gambling’s addictive intermittent reward schedule, there are other reasons for mobile gambling’s addictive nature.

For one thing, online gambling is incredibly easy to access whenever you want. All it requires is picking up your phone or getting on your computer. You no longer have to deal with the logistics of finding a physical casino. With the click of a button, you can navigate to a casino site or app and be gambling from anywhere, anytime. Gambling is literally always at your fingertips.

This ease of accessibility makes it even harder for people who struggle with impulse control – like many people with ADHD – to stop gambling. Mindlessly picking up a cell phone and starting to scroll or click is second nature for so many millennials. And clicking on a gambling site or casino app can become a habit that you associate with opening your phone. If you aren’t able to curb your impulses to pick up your phone or play casino games, you’re much more likely to get sucked in. 

Another reason gambling can be so addictive is it can make people with ADHD feel focused and productive in the short term. Gambling can feel a lot like playing video games – there are lights, noises, and other stimuli that catch and hold your attention. The very act of mobile gambling may make you feel stimulated and focused. Plus, you may feel challenged by trying your hand at games that require a combination of luck and skill, such as Poker or Blackjack. 

link between ADHD and gambling

How to Rein in a Problem With Gambling and ADHD

Gambling becomes a problem when you feel like you need to do it repeatedly for the possibility of a reward. It can become an addiction, causing you financial strain. And like with any other disorder or addiction, it can negatively impact the rest of your life, including your job and your relationships.

If you find yourself gambling while you’re supposed to be working, for example, you might have a problem. Or if you’re spending money you shouldn’t be on online gambling sites, or doing it in secret, that’s another red flag. 

If you think you need help with gambling, consider therapy. I want you to know that there’s nothing to be ashamed of for needing support. As a therapist for millennials with ADHD, many of my clients struggle with behaviors they don’t like in order to try and cope with their ADHD.

In order to rein in your gambling and ADHD problem, it’s important to find other, healthier ways to cope with your struggles and get dopamine. I can help you make the switch from coping mechanisms that are unsustainable and harmful to ones that are healthy and useful.

Together, we can stop your difficulties with gambling and ADHD, find better ways to cope with your struggles and make desired changes to your behaviors to improve your life.

I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation.

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

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