Gambling is a popular pastime for many people, but for others it can cause harm. It can affect physical and mental health, relationships, work or study performance and can leave you in serious debt and even homeless. It can also have a negative impact on family, friends and work colleagues. Problem gambling can lead to feelings of shame, guilt and hopelessness. It can also increase the risk of suicide and it is a significant factor in the deaths of up to 400 people in the UK per year, according to Public Health England.
Gambling involves betting something of value (money, property, etc) on a random event with the intention of winning. The risk is taken because there is no guarantee that the bet will succeed. Many forms of gambling are legal in the UK, including playing card games like poker or blackjack for money with friends or family in a private setting, placing bets on horse races or football matches and wagering money on online gaming sites.
Some people develop a gambling disorder, which is an impulse control disorder similar to other impulsive disorders, such as kleptomania or trichotillomania (hair pulling). In the past, the psychiatric community treated pathological gambling as a compulsion rather than an addiction. But in a move that has been widely praised, the American Psychiatric Association recently moved pathological gambling into the addictions chapter of its diagnostic manual (DSM-5).
When someone gambles, their brain sends massive surges of dopamine to their reward centres when they win or lose. But the surges don’t help them do things that are necessary for survival, such as working or eating. Over time, this can change the chemistry of the brain and desensitise it to gambling’s pleasures.
This is why it’s important for people to learn to stop before the problem gets out of hand. A good way to do this is to set limits on the amount of money they’re willing to spend, to keep their credit cards and other financial assets out of reach and to limit their exposure to gambling environments. They should avoid going to casinos and TABs, for example, and only play on websites with verified security. They should also start to socialise with other people, and take up other hobbies.
If you’re struggling with a gambling addiction, talk to someone. Find a trusted friend or family member who will listen without judgement and who can offer support and advice. Consider joining a peer support group such as Gamblers Anonymous, which is based on the 12-step model of Alcoholics Anonymous. There are also online support groups and self-help tips.