Gambling addiction is not usually the first thing that comes to mind when we think of addiction, but for many individuals and their families, it’s a serious problem. Gambling addiction, also known as problem gambling or compulsive gambling, is characterized by gambling in excessive amounts and continuing to do so despite clear negative consequences and a desire to quit.1 Compulsive gambling is a behavioral, or process, addiction, meaning it falls under the same category of addiction as eating disorders and sex addiction.
Gambling addiction shares some similarities with other forms of addiction, including addiction to substances. It is based on the brain’s reward system, where the release of dopamine associated with gambling drives our behavior to keep doing it.2
Just like substance addiction, treatment for gambling addiction typically involves a number of different types of therapy and recovery coaching.
Gambling addiction can be as destructive to one’s quality of life as any other form of addiction. While the health risks are not as severe as those of certain substance addictions (opioids, sedatives), those suffering can experience significant loss. A person struggling with a gambling addiction may suffer the loss of their home and their possessions due to the nature of their addiction. Relationships can also deteriorate, as can work or school performance, which takes a toll on any person. For a person addicted to gambling, the process and its associated dopamine release can seem the only source of potential pleasure and reward.
There are certain signs to watch out for if you suspect that you or a loved one may have a gambling addiction. If you notice even a few of these signs3, it may be time to reach out for professional help:
A need to increase the stakes to achieve the desired level of excitement
Lies and secrecy about gambling frequency and habits
Gambling to improve one’s mood or deal with stress
Constantly thinking about gambling, or constantly talking about wins and losses
Attempts to stop, but failing to do so
Loss of personal possessions or relationships due to gambling
Irritability when gambling is not an option
Committing crimes or borrowing money to pay of a gambling debt
The psychological effects of gambling can be intense. When an addicted individual places a bet, they may feel a rush or thrill that is hard to forget about, particularly in cases where the stakes are high. This thrill can be overwhelming, especially when a win or loss involves keeping or losing valuable personal possessions such as a car or home. Some people may experience:
Drastically increased blood pressure
An individual addicted to gambling may experience all of the above, yet will still be unable to stop gambling.
When a person addicted to gambling wins a bet, there is a rush of reward chemicals in the brain. The main chemicals involved are norepinephrine and serotonin, chemicals responsible for feelings of happiness and pleasure,4 and the gambler will seek to repeat this chemical release in order to achieve those effects. This is the basis for many types of addiction.
If a bet is lost, even a small one, the gambler will experience a temporary deficiency of the aforementioned chemicals. This results in feelings of disappointment and displeasure. Higher bets lost may result in intense feelings of despair. These negative emotional states are not comfortable for the individual, who may attempt to dispel them with further gambling.
Other than despair, lost bets and the resulting potential loss of assets and relationships may result in co-occurring psychological phenomena such as panic attacks, anxiety, and shortness of breath.
Depending on the individual’s mental and emotional well-being, this loss may also result in loss of mental and emotional control. This can be dangerous, as it could result in suicidal ideation or acts of violence towards oneself or loved ones.
Withdrawal symptoms usually bring to mind substance abuse and addiction, but a person addicted to gambling can also experience withdrawal symptoms when they attempt to stop or when they do not have the opportunity to engage in their addiction.
Compulsive gamblers are subject to a range of psychological and psychosomatic withdrawal symptoms, including5:
An intense craving to gamble
Breathing and digestive problems
Recovery from gambling addiction will involve an assessment of the individual and any underlying psychological health issues that may be present. This assessment can be carried out by a mental health professional and may be followed by various forms of therapy. First, however, the compulsive gambler must understand the need for treatment. At Heather R. Hayes & Associates, we are dedicated to helping individuals and their families recover from the devastating effects that problem gambling can have on all family members. Contact us today to arrange for the help you or loved one needs.
1 Yau, Yvonne H C, and Marc N Potenza. “Gambling disorder and other behavioral addictions: recognition and treatment.” Harvard review of psychiatry vol. 23,2 (2015): 134-46. doi:10.1097/HRP.0000000000000051
2 Jabr, Ferris. “Gambling On The Brain”. Scientific American, vol 309, no. 5, 2013, pp. 28-30. Springer Science And Business Media LLC, doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1113-28. Accessed 15 Oct 2020.
3 Trull, Jeffrey. “8 Signs You’re Addicted To Gambling”. Business Insider, 2013, https://www.businessinsider.com/8-signs-youre-addicted-to-gambling-2013-1. Accessed 15 Oct 2020.
4 Bergland, Christopher. “The Neurochemicals Of Happiness”. Psychology Today, 2012, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201211/the-neurochemicals-happiness. Accessed 15 Oct 2020.
5 Rosenthal, Richard J., and Henry R. Lesieur. “Self-Reported Withdrawal Symptoms And Pathological Gambling”. The American Journal On Addictions, vol 1, no. 2, 1992, pp. 150-154. Wiley, doi:10.1111/j.1521-0391.1992.tb00020.x. Accessed 15 Oct 2020.
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Ethical Intervention and Treatment: A Guide to Ethical Practice Contributions by Heather R. Hayes, M.Ed., LPC, CAI, CIP, Founder & CEO of Heather R. Hayes
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