What Is A Gambling Addiction?
Gambling addiction is characterized by an inability to control impulses to gamble despite gambling’s detrimental effects on social, financial, and psychological health. People with a gambling addiction or disorder—also referred to as gambling addicts, pathological gamblers, or compulsive gamblers—spend an excessive amount of time in casinos, at dog or horse races, with bookies, or gambling online. There are many types of gambling including online gambling, slot machine use, playing the lottery, betting on horses, and sports betting. Problem gambling can result in social and other negative consequences including credit card debt, financial upheaval, mental and behavioral health conditions, problems, relationship trouble, and job loss.
There is no single cause of gambling addiction. Many people with a gambling problem initially turn to gambling to ease stress or earn large amounts of money without having to work or fit in. Over time, uncontrolled, compulsive gambling can destroy people's lives.
How Does Gambling Affect The Body and Brain?
A person with a gambling disorder experiences similar effects to those experienced by a person with a substance abuse disorder. Gambling disorder is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Research shows many correlations between substance use disorders and gambling addiction.
As with drug addiction, gambling stimulates the brain’s reward system.
When these receptors are stimulated by normal activity, like eating a good meal or winning a game, dopamine is released. This encourages us to repeat the behavior to get more of that same good feeling.
How Pathological Gambling Mimics Substance Use Disorder
Certain substances release higher amounts of dopamine than are commonly experienced in pleasurable activities in day-to-day life. Continuing to take these substances essentially floods the brain with dopamine to the point where it slows down the natural production of this “feel good” chemical. After repeated substance use, the brain stops reacting to the same levels of dopamine. More and more dopamine is then needed to achieve that good feeling. As substance use or alcohol progresses, more is needed to feel "normal."
Gambling studies indicate that those with pathological gambling problems have the same genetic risk factors for reward-seeking and impulse control. So, just as a person with a substance abuse problem will use more and more of the drug to get "high," gamblers will pursue higher and higher stakes to get that same good feeling.
Additionally, studies show that problematic gambling changes the brain’s reward systems in the same way chronic drug use does. This makes it harder and harder for the person to stop gambling even though they may want to stop.
Warning Signs and Symptoms of Gambling Addiction
Most people who are problem gamblers demonstrate an unwillingness to accept reality. They can also suffer from emotional insecurity and immaturity. People battling gambling addiction are typically preoccupied with gambling; they may lie about their gambling, even though it makes them feel out of control, and they can sometimes resort to illegal behavior to obtain gambling money or bail themselves out of debt. Co-occurring disorders such as mental illness or substance abuse sometimes accompany gambling addiction.
Other signs of gambling addiction can include:
- Continually increasing the amount of money gambled
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when attempting to cut down or stop gambling
- Unable to cut down or stop gambling activities despite repeated efforts
- Gambling when experiencing stress or difficult feelings
- Trying to "get even" after losing a lot of money
- Risking relationships to loved ones and family members, jobs, or educational opportunities because of gambling
- Asking others for money to help with financial problems that have resulted from gambling
As with all types of addiction, developing a tolerance (needing more and more of the behavior of substance) and experiencing withdrawal symptoms are signs of an addiction. In addition, it’s important to take an honest look at personality and behavioral changes in the person experiencing gambling problems, as these can also be good clues as to whether gambling addiction is present. Sometimes symptoms of addiction are present, and at times they subside.
For this reason, it’s important to take an overall look at the situation and signs.
Signs and Symptoms of Gambling Addiction Withdrawal
Withdrawal from gambling addiction often consist of extreme emotional lows. In addition to the emotional withdrawal symptoms, there are also physical withdrawal symptoms associated with gambling addiction. Some of the symptoms a person may experience include the following:
- Suicidal thoughts
- Strong urges or cravings to gamble
- Loss of interest in daily activities
- Muscle aches and tension
- Racing heart and heart palpitations
- Difficulty breathing
- Tightness in chest
If you or a loved one experiences some of these symptoms when you stop or attempt to stop gambling you may have become addicted to the behavior. Although you may feel overwhelmed and hopeless, it’s important to realize there is help and treatment for gambling addiction.
Treatment Options for Gambling Addiction
Gambling addiction treatment resembles treatment for alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder.
Treatment plans typically involve a combination of counseling such as CBT, medication, self-help, and support groups. If a substance addiction coincides with a gambling addiction, it may need to be addressed first.
Holistic, residential gambling addiction treatment programs can greatly benefit those with a gambling addiction by providing them with a private, therapeutic recovery atmosphere void of triggers and distractions.
Because there may be co-occurring mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety, it’s imperative to treat these conditions at the same time as gambling addiction.