Gambling involves placing something of value on a random event with the intention of winning something else of value. It includes all forms of betting on an outcome based on chance, except for bona fide business transactions, contracts of insurance or guaranty and life, health and accident insurance (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Symptoms of gambling disorder include: acquiring a preoccupation with gambling; attempting repeated, unsuccessful efforts to control gambling; lying to family members, therapists or other people about the extent of gambling involvement; chasing losses (trying to recoup money lost through gambling); engaging in illegal acts to fund gambling; jeopardizing relationships or job opportunities; relying on others to manage financial situations caused by gambling (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).
Unlike many other activities in which humans engage, such as eating a meal or spending time with loved ones, gambling does not trigger pleasure in the brain in a predictable way. Instead, gamblers rely on uncertainty to trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, creating a powerful reward cycle. This reward system is activated in the same areas of the brain that are affected by drug addiction.
As a result, gambling can be very addictive. People often begin gambling to relieve unpleasant feelings, such as boredom or stress. They may also try to compensate for past financial failures or relationship conflicts. However, there are healthier and more effective ways to soothe emotions and relieve boredom, such as exercising, socializing with friends who do not gamble or practicing relaxation techniques.
The first step in overcoming gambling addiction is acknowledging that you have a problem. This can be difficult, especially if you have already lost a great deal of money and strained or broken relationships as a result of your gambling habits. It is important to seek professional help from a counselor, therapist or psychiatrist who specializes in gambling disorders.
It is also helpful to understand the underlying causes of your gambling behavior. Personality traits and coexisting mental health conditions can play a role in your susceptibility to gambling disorders. Those with a history of trauma, depression or anxiety are at greater risk for developing gambling disorders. Additionally, genetics and family history can contribute to your susceptibility to gambling disorders.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not currently approve any medications to treat gambling disorder, several types of psychotherapy can be helpful. One type, psychodynamic therapy, focuses on unconscious processes that influence your behavior and can help you become more self-aware. Another type of therapy, group psychotherapy, can provide moral support and motivation for recovery. Finally, cognitive behavioral therapy can teach you skills to change unhealthy thoughts and behaviors related to gambling. For example, you might learn to recognize thoughts like “I can always win,” or “I don’t have a choice.” You could then practice replacing these negative thoughts with more realistic and empowering ones. You can also learn to set and maintain money limits when you gamble. For example, you might decide to only gamble with a certain percentage of your weekly entertainment budget and to stop when you hit that amount.