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    Childhood Trauma And Adult Gambling Unraveling The Psychological Links 1 Scaled

    Childhood Trauma and Adult Gambling: Unraveling the Psychological Links

    Article by : Svetozar Kuzman Jun 17, 2024

    There are many reasons why people develop a gambling habit. Some have been exposed to gambling from an early age, others have taken it up in adulthood as an interesting and exciting pastime, and there are also people who use gambling as a sort of maladaptive coping mechanism.

    Quite often there isn’t a single reason why a person finds gambling interesting (or any other habit for that matter). There are many different factors that increase or decrease the likelihood of gambling addiction, such as early exposure to things such as sports betting and poker on the one hand or resilience on the other. Childhood trauma can be an important factor in development of a variety of psychological issues, including gambling addiction. In this article we’re going to talk about how childhood trauma can contribute to overindulgence in casino games, poker, sports betting, or even lottery!

    Childhood Trauma and Psychological Development

    Childhood trauma can occur as a result of neglect (emotional, physical, or supervisory) or abuse (sexual, emotional, or physical). People who suffer from clinically-significant psychological issues have frequently experienced traumatic events in early childhood: a study has found that 59% of people who experience psychological disorders in adulthood have experienced emotional abuse in childhood and 54% suffered physical neglect, while 28% of people from a community-based sample (who didn’t necessarily have psychological disorders) experienced traumatic events in childhood.

    Adverse childhood events can leave long-lasting marks on one’s personality. They can affect all aspects of one’s life, such as attachment styles, coping mechanisms, defense mechanisms, etc.

    Not all people react to adverse childhood events in the same way. While some people can be severely traumatized by things such as physical abuse (e.g. corporal punishment), others are able to move on without too many issues relating to their negative early-life experiences. The concept of resilience is important in this respect: more resilient people are able to withstand traumatic events, while less resilient people may develop significant psychological issues (as well as medical issues) that necessitate comprehensive treatment.

    Childhood Trauma and Gambling

    A study has found that women sexually traumatized in childhood were two times more likely to develop pathological gambling later in life in comparison to females who didn’t experience such a trauma, while men with sexual trauma were 1.5 times more likely to develop pathological gambling habits.

    It is likely that virtually all aforementioned types of trauma can increase the likelihood of a gambling disorder, as suggested by a review article summarizing the findings of 12 high-quality studies on gambling. This article highlights the effect of child abuse (physical and emotional) on the development of gambling addiction in adulthood.

    Consequences of Child Trauma and Adult Gambling

    Early adverse experience can lead to a variety of psychological disorders, such as:

    1. Depression
    2. Anxiety-related disorders
    3. PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)
    4. Personality disorders
    5. Dissociative identity disorder
    6. Substance use disorders
    7. Behavioral addictions (e.g. gambling)

    All of these issues have serious, sometimes life-threatening consequences. Depression, for instance, may lead to self-harm, and reduces overall quality of life and productivity. Early traumatization can also result in a variety of anxiety disorders such as phobias, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, etc.

    PTSD is another potential consequence of early traumatization. Complex PTSD is a diagnosis introduced to account for repeated, chronic traumatization, while PTSD relates more to acute, sudden, intense single-event traumatization.

    Dissociative identity disorder (DID) has been popularized in movies and popular culture, but this is in fact a very rare disorder where a person experiences having multiple personalities. It is suggested that DID is related to severe childhood trauma, usually perpetrated by the caregiver.

    Severe traumatization usually results in a combination of different disorders and a very complicated clinical picture. As we can see, gambling is one potential consequence of early traumatization, bringing significant hardship to traumatized individuals. Gambling disorder has a lot of specific, distinct individual consequences:

    1. Financial instability, to the point of complete bankruptcy
    2. Accumulation of debt (both from legal institutions and usurers)
    3. Drawing one’s family into debt

    As for the wider, societal consequences of gambling disorder:

    1. Impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods
    2. Broken families, high divorce rates
    3. People who have a gambling disorder are more likely to traumatize their own children

    As we can see, once the vicious circle of trauma and gambling commences, it’s very hard to stop it. Gambling addicts are more likely to expose their children to gambling and are also more likely to inflict significant psychological trauma, which means their children are also more likely to become pathological gamblers.

    Psychological Mechanisms Relating Childhood Trauma to Gambling

    The relationship between different types of adverse childhood events and gambling is rather complex. For instance, traumatic experiences such as physical or emotional abuse can lead to establishment of insecure, withdrawn, avoidant, or chaotic attachment styles. These maladaptive attachment styles, in turn, increase the likelihood of a variety of psychological issues, including gambling addiction.

    The maladaptive attachment styles are related to poor emotional regulation and establishment of dysfunctional coping mechanisms. Let’s consider an example:

    Mark, now 25 years old, has been physically and emotionally abused as a child. His father would regularly beat him, belittling him, threatening, and destroying his confidence. Due to these traumatic experiences, Mark has established an emotionally withdrawn attachment style, avoiding getting too intimate with people because he associated intimacy with physical and emotional abuse. Finding no satisfaction in interpersonal relationships, Mark stumbled upon gambling as something that gives him a sense of being alive, a sort of excitement and thrill.

    Mark overindulges in gambling, having troubles controlling his gambling habits. Early-life experiences with his impulsive father made him into a similar person, as Mark unconsciously repeats the impulsive behavior exhibited by his father. This is why Mark has problems stopping once he starts gambling. In other words, Mark’s early life trauma not only led him to develop a negative attachment style that in turn led him to seek satisfaction in gambling, but also made it harder for him to control his gambling habits.

    It should be clear now how early trauma can put one in a vicious circle that seems impossible to get out of. Fortunately, there are many ways in which Mark can address his issues and learn how to have a more fulfilling life.

    Treating Trauma and Gambling Addiction

    Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT)

    DBT has initially been developed with the goal of helping people who suffered from personality disorders, namely Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). People with BPD, in turn, often experienced significant childhood traumatization as a result of which they become emotionally unstable, establishing unhealthy interpersonal relationships and indulging in risky, impulsive actions.

    In fact, a study showed that around 70% of pathological gamblers suffer from borderline personality disorder, with high rates of all other personality disorders, such as histrionic, narcissistic, paranoid, dependent, and antisocial personality disorders.

    DBT is a therapy focusing on three core aspects of psychological functioning:

    1. Distress tolerance
    2. Interpersonal functioning
    3. Emotion regulation
    4. Mindfulness

    DBT therapists focus on building a solid personality basis, one that can face life challenges, frustration, interpersonal issues without resorting to maladaptive coping mechanisms. DBT focuses on the here and now, helping people to learn how to handle stress in real-time. It’s a scientifically-validated way of treating patients who suffer from personality disorders, substance use disorder and pathological gambling.

    Support Groups

    You’ve probably heard about Alcoholics Anonymous, well, there’s a similar thing for gamblers, called Gamblers Anonymous. This workframe allows for participants to open up about their troubles and receive advice from people who faced similar issues. Importantly, Gamblers Anonymous provide nonjudgmental encouragement and a proven, systematic method of giving up gambling and adopting a healthier lifestyle.

    Cognitive Processing Therapy

    For gamblers who want the therapy to focus mainly on their trauma, cognitive processing therapy, originally designed for treatment of PTSD, may be the best choice. Cognitive processing therapy is a proven method of helping persons with significant interpersonal trauma. Cognitive processing therapy is similar to cognitive behavioral therapy in that it also uses the standard ABC system (antecedents – beliefs – consequences), but with a focus on the meaning of traumatic events and how they might have shaped one’s concept of self.

    Cognitive processing therapy helps people to let go of irrational beliefs related to trauma, such as “It’s my fault that this thing happened to me!”, “I’m not a normal human being!”, “I’ll never be able to recover!”, etc.

    Future Research

    With the progress of neuroscience, it is likely that future breakthroughs in understanding the link between childhood trauma and adult gambling will come from a better understanding of the neurological effects of trauma and what role they play in adult gambling.

    A related field of future research concerns the utilization of transcranial magnetic stimulation of specific brain areas. In fact, a study has already shown that magnetic stimulation of medial prefrontal cortex and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex has a potential to reduce the allure of gambling among pathological gamblers.


    Childhood trauma is a known risk factor for adult gambling. The situation, of course, isn’t so simple, not all people who were traumatized as children develop a gambling disorder, and it’s likely that childhood trauma indirectly increases the risk of pathological gambling, via more direct symptoms such as poor emotion regulation, poor impulse control, and development of a variety of other psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, personality disorders, etc.

    Fortunately, there’s a way to treat both childhood trauma and adult gambling, in this article, we’ve mentioned three specific methods: dialectical behavior therapy, support groups, and cognitive processing therapy, but there are many more potential treatment methods, such as psychodynamic therapy, gestalt therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), gambling self-exclusion programs, and many, many more.

    Svetozar Kuzman

    Svetozar is a psychologist with a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology from the University of Belgrade, where he studied at the Faculty of Philosophy in the Psychology Department, specifically focusing on Clinical Psychology. With a passion for understanding and helping individuals with addiction disorders, Svetozar has worked extensively in mental health hospitals in Belgrade, concentrating on gambling addiction in particular.