How Gambling Affects the Brain and How to Recognize Problems

Gambling involves risking money or anything of value on the outcome of a game of chance, such as betting on a football match or buying a scratchcard. It can be a fun pastime when done responsibly, but gambling can be dangerous and addictive for people with certain mental health issues. In this article, we’ll look at what gambling is, how it affects the brain, and how to recognize problems. We’ll also explore healthier and safer ways to relieve unpleasant emotions, unwind, or socialize.

Researchers have discovered that gambling, as well as drugs, affect the brain in similar ways. Both trigger the release of massive amounts of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter that makes you excited. Unfortunately, this surge of dopamine isn’t helpful in motivating you to do necessary activities like work or take care of your family. Instead, it can cause you to seek out pleasure from unhealthy sources like gambling and other drug use.

People with a gambling disorder have difficulty controlling their spending, are preoccupied with gambling, and feel compelled to gamble even when it causes them distress. They may lie to their families, therapists, or employers to conceal the extent of their involvement with gambling. They might have jeopardized a significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity, or financial security to gamble. They might also be tempted to commit illegal acts, such as forgery, fraud, theft, or embezzlement, to finance their gambling. They might be irritable, restless, or angry when they are not gambling, and they might experience depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts.

Scientists have discovered that genetic factors, as well as environment, can influence the risk of developing a gambling disorder. Many cases of gambling disorder run in families, and studies on identical twins suggest a genetic link. Other factors that might contribute to a gambling disorder include childhood trauma, stressful events in adulthood, and poor stress management skills.

There are several treatment options available for those with a gambling disorder. One option is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which teaches people to resist unwanted thoughts and habits. It can also help people confront irrational beliefs, such as the idea that a series of losses or a close call–such as two out of three cherries on a slot machine–signals an imminent win.

Another effective treatment is peer support groups. Some of these groups are organized around a 12-step recovery program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous. The members of these groups share their experiences with gambling addiction and provide support and guidance to each other. They might also work with a counselor to learn new coping skills, such as problem-solving and impulse control.