Gambling Disorder vs. Substance Use Disorder

Differences and Similarities

Both chemical dependency and pathological gambling are disorders resulting in negative consequences for the person and almost always the family. Despite many similarities there are some poignant differences.

The general public has absorbed some knowledge of substance use/abuse and knows that when an individual ingests a substance into their body, they are in an altered state. Often, however, most individuals, even problem gamblers themselves, don’t realize that their gambling activity is also creating an altered state, brought on by a behavior.

Here are some of the distinguishing traits and characteristics that make them the same yet different. Regardless, help is available … and it works!



  • Inability to Stop: Telling myself, “I’m not going back to the casino or the bar ever again—I’m done.
  • Denial: An inability to recognize the connection between continued use of gambling or substances and negative life consequences.
  • Progressive Disease: Always worsens over time, never improves.
  • Blackouts/Brownouts: Not remembering events the day after using or gambling (i.e., frequent trips to the ATM or how I got home are absent from their memory).
  • Addictions Used to Escape Reality: Gambling or using substances to escape reality; to not feel anything.
  • Preoccupation: Difficulty focusing. Frequent thoughts recalling use or gambling episodes or thinking about plans for future use.


  •  No Saturation Point: Cannot overdose. With access to ANY money, they continue gambling, until the last dollar is gone, or they are found out.
  • Invisible Disease: There are no outward physiological signs; no slurred speech, stumbling around, dilated pupils. So often hidden from family, friends and co-workers.
  • No Ingestion Needed for a High: Same chemical reaction activated in brain’s reward system, producing a high or sense of pleasure.
  • Fewer Availability of Resources: Less money allocated to assist with gambling prevention or treatment services.
  • Fewer GA Meetings (self-help groups): Long-distance travel often involved to meet with treatment provider/program/GA meetings.
  • Financial Distress: For many gamblers, they see gambling as the problem but also as the solution. They have often “won” which provided short term relief for their financial woes.
  • Family Effects: Many gamblers are the financial managers of the household, keeping the gambling hidden. Family is often blind-sided by the financial devastation and long-term financial recovery that lies ahead. Due to lies and manipulation when gambling, significant feelings of betrayal are difficult for some family members to work through.