Every day, almost everyone takes a gamble of one type or another. Whether it is as high stakes as investing your savings on the stock market, or as simple as trying a new recipe for dinner, most of the decisions we make have the potential to backfire. When they go well, we feel good; pleased with ourselves and our success. When they go badly, well, as the saying goes, we try, try, try again.
This response is key to human evolution. Our brains are fine tuned to reward risk with positive emotions – this is what keeps us moving forward and striving for innovation and success. The bigger the risk is, the higher the emotional reward.
Though this mechanism has got us far as a species, it also has the potential to backfire badly. Compulsive gamblers can throw away thousands of pounds in a single evening as they chase the rush of a big win. For them, the euphoria experienced when a gamble pays off is so exhilarating that they begin to crave it. And when the bet goes bad, another bet often seems like the best answer to the emotional crash that follows losing.
Gambling companies know how this works inside-out, and casinos, slot machines and internet gambling sites are perfectly designed to capitalize on our natural tendencies to take risks while making absolutely sure that in the long run, the gambler can only lose. The rollercoaster of risk and reward that these companies offer can be highly engaging and, over time, can lead to addiction.
According to the NHS, there are now almost 600 000 ‘problem gamblers’ in Great Britain – people who gamble compulsively and with little control over themselves.
Most often, problem gamblers are young, male and come from families where gambling is the norm. But by no means is this always the case – problem gamblers come from all walks of life, and population demographics are better at predicting what type of gambling someone will partake in rather than whether or not they will have gambling problems.
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In the past, gambling was confined to racetracks, casinos and informal games, often held among friends and invariably accompanied by alcohol or drugs.
Nowadays, you can bet thousands of pounds from your phone in a matter of minutes, and every high street has at least one betting shop, often lined wall to wall with slot machines which can take bets of up to £300 a minute. While the old types of gambling are still popular, the new forms have widened its appeal and dramatically increased levels of problem gambling.
Internet Gambling Of all the gambling types on offer, internet gambling is the most closely associated with addiction. This is in part because of ease of access – when you carry a mini casino around in your pocket all day, it can be incredibly hard to resist placing bets. But it is also because of how internet gambling sites are designed. Similar to slot machines, internet gambling often involves rapid play, with one bet rolling over automatically into the next, while constantly giving the illusion that the player is close to winning. These factors have been shown to be of high risk for addiction.
It is not always easy to spot the signals that you or someone close to you has developed a gambling problem. Often, the first signal might be money problems brought on by gambling, and the ways in which the gambler reacts to this event. However, there are other signs and symptoms to watch out for.
Asking to borrow money from friends and family and being evasive or dishonest about the reason
‘Chasing losses’, as the gambler returns to place more bets in order to try and get even
Preoccupation, as the person’s mind is constantly on gambling or problems with debt
Lying about what they have been doing or where they have been
Possessing large amounts of cash, which then disappear
Committing crimes such as fraud, theft or embezzlement, especially when the proceeds then disappear
Similar to drug or alcohol addiction, the person needs to gamble increasing amounts to achieve the same rush
Spending large amounts of time online with no apparent purpose
How does gambling become an addiction?
Perhaps more than any other type of addiction, gambling is often considered as a moral vice rather than a chronic disease. But this is a misunderstanding. Much like alcohol or drug dependence, gambling addiction occurs on a bio-chemical level in the brain. Whenever any of our five senses are activated, chemicals called neurotransmitters wash through our brains. These chemicals are what dictate our moods, emotions and physical feelings, and different types of neurotransmitters make us feel different ways.
This all goes on right in the centre of the brain, in an area called the ‘mid brain’, which is where our deepest survival instincts and subconscious thoughts reside. The mid brain does not think or make decisions; it is responsible for the basics – eat, sex, kill – and the pursuit of pleasure. When something pleases us, whether it is a hug, some tasty food, wining a bet or taking drugs, two key neurotransmitters called dopamine and norepinephrine are released in the mid brain, causing feelings of euphoria and physical comfort. The more extreme the source of pleasure is, the higher the amounts of neurotransmitters that are released, and consequently the stronger the pleasure experienced by the person.
The problem occurs when a particular source of intense pleasure – in this case gambling – is engaged in repeatedly. When this happens, the brain stores this information as subconscious memory, and begins to physically change to make space for the increased amounts of dopamine and norepinephrine rushing around the mid brain. The result of this is dramatic: the subconscious elevates gambling up its list of priorities to the same level as basic survival necessities, so instead of it focusing on ‘eat, sex, kill’, it focuses on ‘eat, sex, kill, gamble.’ Over time, gambling can be prioritized even further, until it becomes more important to the addict than even eating.
The good news is that although the brain can change shape to cause addiction, with effective treatment, therapy and time, it can change back to normal and the person can live a happy and fulfilling life, free of addiction.
Gambling and co-morbidity Perhaps more than any other addiction, compulsive gambling is often accompanied by drug or alcohol dependency. A large amount of studies have found that up to 33% of gambling addicts reported alcoholism, while over a third of young gambling addicts report heavy use of alcohol or illicit drugs. In addition, gambling addiction is often accompanied by psychological disorders, including depression, anxiety and Insomnia.
Social factors behind gambling addiction
Although it is clear how gambling addiction works in the brain, why is it that some people can happily place the occasional bet for fun, while others can’t stop gambling even when it starts having destructive effects on their lives? The answer may lie in one or more factors:-
Growing up in an environment where gambling is the norm greatly increases the chances of developing problems with gambling in the future. Having an abusive or neglectful upbringing is also a contributing factor, as it can lead to psychological problems later in life, from which gambling can appear to offer a distraction. Furthermore, gambling can provide the illusion of success, both economically and socially, which is alluring to individuals with feelings of low self-worth.
Studies show that family genes are an extremely significant factor in determining whether an individual becomes addicted to gambling or not. According to twin studies, the risk of someone developing a gambling addiction is 50% higher if other members of their direct families have gambling or other addictions. However, what is being inherited is not an addiction to gambling specifically, but a vulnerability for several conditions. This may help explain why gambling addiction, more so than other addictions, is often accompanied by substance or alcohol abuse, mood disorders or antisocial personality disorders.
Many people who start out gambling have little to no understanding that odds are stacked against them, and that even if they win at first it is impossible for them to make money in the long term. They often misunderstand that gambling outcomes are completely random and independent of past outcomes, and as such any ‘system’ the gambler develops cannot work.
The impacts of gambling addiction
Compulsive gambling can lead to a wide range of problems that may well accumulate over time. In fact, one of the reasons gambling addiction can be so destructive is that placing bets is often seen as the only route out of the problems that gambling caused in the first place, leading individuals down a negative spiral.
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Although gambling addiction is a serious, destructive order that results from changes in the brain, it doesn’t require a detox program like alcohol or drug addiction treatment. Instead, it can be successfully treated with a combination of different types of therapy, group support and recovery resources.
Below are the core therapies that can help patients recover from gambling addiction:
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is used to address the psychological processes that underlie gambling addiction. A very active type of therapy, CBT uses a range of techniques from role playing to story-telling and homework. Research has shown that it is especially helpful at dealing with the false expectations and mistaken perceptions of many gambling addicts
Group Therapy helps provide peer support. It can be extremely effective in helping the patient come to understand some of the essential truths about their addiction, as members of the group work together to overcome the same issues. In group therapy, members exchange stories, coping strategies, hopes and difficulties. With the structure of the 12 steps program, these groups can help patients work through the process of recovery in an atmosphere of mutual respect and support.
Individual Therapy, where the patient works one on one with a therapist, helps to build the gambler’s understanding of their addiction and guide them through their recovery. Specialized therapists work with the patient to identify and develop strategies to deal with the key triggers associated with their addiction. Together, the therapist and patient address methods of dealing with stresses and psychological issues in productive and positive ways.
Families or couples counselling can be a necessary step in building a nurturing and supportive environment for the gambler’s recovery. Financial problems, lying and deceit are normal issues inflicted on the friends and families of gambling addicts, and this can make it difficult for them to support the gambler in their recovery. Furthermore, these issues may have cause psychological difficulties in those close to the gambler, which counselling can help to address.