Gambling can be a fun and exciting, low-risk recreational activity for some people. For others, however, gambling shifts from casual pastime to serious addiction.
Gambling becomes an addiction when it is something you or a loved one cannot control and when it begins to affect a person’s financial, familial, social, recreational, educational, or occupational functioning.1,2 Gambling addiction, much like some forms of substance addiction, is associated with a release of dopamine in the brain as much as 10 times more than what is normal.3 Dopamine has been referred to as the “feel good” neurotransmitter, and this special signaling chemical is active throughout the reward centers of the brain. So the release of dopamine tells your brain, “This feels good! I want more!” What begins as a harmless good feeling can turn into a compulsive need in some people.
This happens because of the body’s natural response to external stimulation of dopamine production. In essence, dopamine centers become lazy and stop doing what they are intended to do, instead simply waiting around for gambling to do the work for them. This very natural physiological tendency creates tolerance, which drives a need for more and more gambling in order to receive the same rush. Gambling dependence may then develop in which a person must gamble just to feel good or even to feel normal.1
Why Do People Start Gambling?
There is no one-size-fits-all reason that people begin to gamble. Gambling is readily accessible to those older than 18, from scratch-off and lottery tickets to casinos within driving distance in most states. Places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City are alluring to some because of their inherent novelty and glamour, and to others because of the competitive aspect of some card games. And the chances of winning a massive jackpot appeals to most of us as a rapid financial solution.
No matter the reason someone starts gambling, it is important to remember that not everyone who goes to a casino or buys a scratch-off ticket will become addicted to making wagers. However, there is evidence to suggest that certain people may be more physiologically and temperamentally vulnerable to gambling addiction than others.1,3 Knowing that you or a loved one may be predisposed to a gambling addiction can be helpful in deciding whether or not beginning to gamble is a wise decision for you and your future.
Who Is at Risk for Gambling Addiction?
Several studies show that gambling, like substance use, may have certain genetic origins that predispose a person to becoming addicted. These include:1,3
- People with lower levels of serotonin.
- People with a more impulsive nature.
- People who seek out activities that provide immediate rewards.
- People who tend not to consider long-term consequences of actions.
Some studies show that people who become addicted to gambling may actually produce lower levels of serotonin, which is associated with a general lack of interest in activities or a lack of pleasure derived from most activities (known as anhedonia in the mental health community). Operating at this baseline state may encourage a person to engage in activities that increase the amount of serotonin in the brain, leading to feelings of happiness and pleasure that others may feel without the added stimulus. 3
Other studies show that those who become addicted to gambling or substances are genetically predisposed to make more impulsive decisions and seek activities that provide immediate reward. These studies provide evidence that the parts of the brain that control inhibition and allow a person to think through potential consequences and rewards for certain actions may be under-active, leading to impulsivity and reward-seeking. 1,3
Common Signs and Side Effects of Gambling Addiction
There are common signs that you can look for in yourself or a loved one if you suspect that gambling has become an addiction. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (Version 5), the diagnostic tome for mental health professionals, outlines nine common symptoms of gambling addiction, including:2
- A need to spend more and more money in order to get the gambling rush that a person seeks from the experience.
- Restlessness, anxiety, or irritability when a person attempts to reduce the amount spent on gambling or to stop gambling altogether.
- Many attempts have been made to quit gambling, but have been unsuccessful.
- Continuous thoughts of gambling, including when the next trip will be, how to get money for the next trip, or constant reminiscing about previous gambling excursions.
- A person is triggered to gamble more frequently when experiencing negative mental and emotional states.
- A person must gamble the next day after a loss, either in the hopes of recouping losses or to break even with the system.
- A person lies about where he is going, how much he has spent, or downplays how involved he is in gambling.
- Relationships with friends and family have been damaged, or educational and employment statuses have been negatively impacted by gambling.
- A person consistently requests money from others in order to pay bills that have been ignored so that he could gamble.
Red Flags for Friends and Family
The common signs of gambling addiction mentioned in the previous section can alert you to a loved one’s addiction. Additional and more specific red flags that you can look for include: 2
- Loved ones seem to have more mood swings that begin to resemble a mood disorder such as bipolar, where they seem to be “high” some days and deeply depressed, withdrawn, or snappy other days.
- Noticing that your loved ones are neglecting bills, asking you for money frequently, or stealing from you. You may notice overdue bills in the mail or overhear calls from bill collectors. Your loved ones may also be in debt to several small loan centers, and they may even begin to steal money or other valuable items from you.
- Noticing that your loved ones are skipping school or work. This may begin as an infrequent occurrence that then become chronic. They may flunk several classes if they are in college, or get fired or have several disciplinary actions against them at work.
- You may begin to notice that the things they have told you about where they spend their time or money do not add up. Discrepancies in your loved ones’ stories will become evident the longer their addiction continues. If you confront these discrepancies, your loved ones may become angry, hostile, and aggressive, or they may turn it around on you. These may be signs that your loved one is actually hiding an addiction.
- You notice that your loved ones no longer make plans with you or keep the plans that they make with you. They may also become increasingly withdrawn when they are not gambling.
- Your loved ones spend more time online playing games that are related to gambling and become upset when you try to get them to spend less time online.
- Your loved ones seem to drink more frequently or you suspect them of abusing other substances. Gambling and substance use trigger the release of the same feel-good chemical in the brain. Your loved ones may increasingly rely on substances when they are not able to gamble.
Treating Gambling Addiction
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been used successfully to gradually rewire and retrain the brain to overcome emotional and cognitive states that drive the impulsive behavioral patterns that are associated with addiction. In addition, now that gambling is recognized as actually changing the brain’s chemistry, treatment options have broadened to include medication-assisted therapy that addresses these changes. Naltrexone, an opioid antagonist commonly used to treat opioid use disorders, has been successfully used to treat gambling disorders. Naltrexone effectively reduces the cravings that are associated with addictive behaviors and also inhibits dopamine release, and the rewarding effects that accompany its release, when an addicted person engages in the addictive activity.3
- Van Holst, R.J., van den Brink, W., Veltman, D.J., & Goudriaan, A.E. (2010). Brain Imaging Studies in Pathological Gambling. Current Psychiatry Reports, 12(5), 418-425.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Jabr, F. (2013). Gambling on the Brain. Scientific American, 309(5), 28-30.