Gambling Addiction and Getting Help
Like any other ‘vice’ or guilty pleasure – drinking alcohol, smoking a cigarette, overeating – gambling is seen as something common among current society. And similarly to the vices aforementioned, dabbling in circles of gambling and betting can be the start of a slippery slope.
How much do you know about gambling? Is it considered as much of a cognitive illness as say, alcoholism, binge-eating disorder, or drug addiction? In this post, we will look at how gambling affects the mind, body, and brain.
Gambling addiction or ‘problem gambling’ refers to a behavioural disorder whereby the act of gambling interrupts the normal workings of the brain’s reward system. This causes the person to keep on gambling despite any negative impact it has upon that person’s life.
Table of Contents
- 1. What gambling does to your brain
- 2. The behaviour behind gambling
- 3. How it becomes addictive
- 4. Internet gambling
- 5. Gambling & mental health
- 6. Environmental factors
- 7. Helping a loved one
- 8. Therapies for gambling addiction
- 9. 5 ways to stop gambling
- 10. Alternatives to gambling
- 11. How can we help?
- 12. References
What does gambling do to your brain?
As with all addictions, gambling stimulates dopamine, endorphins and other neurotransmitters that stimulate the pleasure centres of your brain. It particularly disturbs the production of dopamine.
Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter circling around the reward system, responsible for how we feel pleasure and our decision-making. It is released whenever the gambler both gambles – even without winning – and even more so when it produces a win.
So believe it or not, it isn’t as simple as the person ‘wanting to win loads of money’. In fact, some studies show that the effect it has on the brain isn’t determined by the outcome, but the anticipation of the outcome.
So dopamine, in particular, is released in the brain when enjoying activities where the reward is uncertain, or the reward is anticipated but not certain. This enables researchers to understand how easy it can be for a person to slip into gambling addiction. 
Essentially, the anticipation of a gamble and the potential euphoria from winning activate the brain’s reward system and produces a feeling of ‘high.’ The problem is, the amount of dopamine released is 10 times more than a normal rewarding experience would normally produce.
This means that even less dopamine is produced when the person is not engaging in a rewarding activity. The chase for dopamine may also be the reason why those with existing underlying mental health issues may be more susceptible to becoming addicted, just like with substances.
Understanding the behaviour behind gambling
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5) recently reclassified gambling from “pathological” (an impulse-control disorder in order to relieve anxiety) to a “behavioural addiction.”
It has since been placed under the same section as substance abuse disorders, which emphasises the strong association between gambling disorder and other types of addiction.  However, signs of gambling addiction are often overlooked because of the misconception that you can only be addicted to a substance – not a behaviour.
This has been controversial even within the science world. The finding that the biology underlying gambling addiction – the changes in chemical activity within the brain – was similar to that of substance addiction helps determine the best possible methods in treating problem gamblers.
How does gambling become addictive?
Psychological factors make it almost impossible for problem gamblers to stop. These are listed below:
1. Partial reinforcement
This relates to sporadic wins; the problem gambler knows there’s always a chance that they might win and therefore continues to bet or gamble.
2. Availability heuristic
The brain has realised gambling is a ‘short-cut’ to big highs – sometimes without even moving from the house, and certainly without taking mind-altering substances.
3. Gambler’s fallacy
‘Monte Carlo’ fallacy or the ‘fallacy of the maturity of chances’ is best described as a big ‘balancing act.’ If the gambler loses a certain amount of times, then a win must be around the corner. When in fact each gamble is completely independent of the other.
4. Illusion of control
Gamblers will convince themselves that they are gaining knowledge and experiences that can be used in order to manipulate other gambles and help them win. The more they gamble, the better they will become at the specific game.
5. Loss aversion
This is a lack of production in the neurotransmitter called noradrenaline, which is a stress response, one usually activated when losing money. Those with low levels of this neurotransmitter are less stressed or concerned by a gambling loss. They are therefore more likely to carry on betting without feeling the wrath or worry from the loss.
As the internet becomes more accessible than ever, so has gambling. You don’t need to attend a betting shop, you don’t even need to leave your bed. All you need is a laptop or a phone.
Recently legal steps have been taken to introduce a £2 stake limit in betting shops, but this has not yet been extended to online gambling. Ironically, internet gambling is where it is most accessible, though the Gambling Commission is calling for such measures to be put in place.
This is particularly worrying in the current circumstances; isolation, loneliness, financial worries, no real job security, low mood, all things that have been exacerbated by the current pandemic. These are all elements that make a problem gambler more likely to gamble.
Can gambling cause mental health issues?
Without a doubt, similarly to any addiction, problem gambling can lead to a wealth of mental health issues. The concepts of fear, shame, and blame are all prevalent, as is the stress of balancing accumulating debts.
Below we discuss the three ‘S’s in relation to gambling and mental health:
The stress and worry of the burdens that come from problem gambling can cause anxiety and depression. These symptoms can lead to self-medicating, by gambling.
It’s a vicious but very real cycle. Debt can cause poor mental health in and of itself, and isolation has to potential to worsen these for those with gambling addiction.
This is a worrying even under normal circumstances, the issue usually goes under the radar until crisis point, the breakup of relationships, family intervention, suicidal thoughts, and suicide.
1 in 5 problem gamblers considers suicide compared with 4.1% of the general population. This is also something that has been heightened during recent months, with the sense of isolation and loneliness of the digital era.
Despite the rising discussion surrounding mental health and suicide prevention, ending one's life is still seen for some as the only way out.
It can also cause mental health issues deriving from the shame of knowing they have a problem. People equate the word addiction’ with some sort of character flaw, when in fact it is a disturbance of the reward system.
People may also be less reluctant to admit they have a betting problem as there is no physical evidence or product to purchase. For example, a police officer could not stop a driver at random on the premise 'excuse me sir, you've had a bet today haven't you?'
Environmental Factors and Predisposition
It has been argued that those more likely to become addicted to gambling have an underactive brain reward system. This disturbance in the production of dopamine is one where gambling produces more than was ever being produced prior to the addiction.
It’s also been argued that it may be something to do with the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain that’s responsible for decision-making. Less activation of the pre-frontal cortex means urges to gamble are harder to rationalize or control.
Helping a loved one with a gambling addiction
1. Loving detachment
When it comes to any sort of addiction, it’s important to practice loving detachment. It’s easy to want to take their pain away, and in this case, it may be paying off a considerable amount of debt, or lending them money.
If you find yourself lying for them, or lying to them that what they are doing is okay, it just enables them further. As much as you may want to rescue them, no amount of saving will amount to themselves wanting to take that step to help themselves.
2. Be compassionate
As angry as you may be, it is vital to treat those suffering with compassion. It’s important to be open, any secrecy will enable the person to carry on unnoticed behaviours that can not be spotted. Talk through their ways out of it – financially, emotionally. Encourage and support them.
Therapies for gambling addiction
Fortunately, the more we discuss gambling addiction as a mental illness, the more research and resources are available for those who are afflicted by problem gambling. Below we have listed some of the most common treatments for gambling addiction:
1. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a goal-orientated therapy which challenges and changes thinking and behaviour patterns. It tries to change the attitudes and instilled beliefs of the client, is (usually) short term, and is non-invasive.
2. Group Therapy
Group therapy is known to be an extremely effective form of therapy. Not only does the person battling gambling addiction come to learn more about their problems, but it is also a safe space shared with people from all different backgrounds and provides a sense of community.
Gamblers Anonymous is currently operating in the UK and it mirrors the 12-step programme used in Alcohol Anonymous.
3. Family Therapy
Sometimes this is necessary rather than an option; a problem gambler may have lied about or stolen money from loved ones in order to fund their addiction.
Family therapy is sometimes imperative to recovery as their understanding of the problem will enable them to provide better ways to support and cope with the problem gambling.
4. Individual Therapy
There are therapists that specialize in gambling addiction who offer one on one treatment. They will talk you through your addiction and help you understand more about how you got to this place with gambling. 
You will build strategies ad coping mechanisms and also identify triggers that may hinder your recovery.
5 ways to stop gambling
Below we have listed five top tips to help you curb your gambling addiction and find your way back:
Getting past the obstacle of denial is a tough one, but sets you on the road to recovery. It is estimated that only 3% of those with a gambling problem actually seek help, but admitting you have a problem will get you on that path.
Joining a support group will enable you to see that you are certainly not alone in facing your problem. There are Gamblers Anonymous that mirrors the 12-step programme in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Research indicates that sharing problems not only alleviates anxiety and stress but talking to people with similar habits and issues can help equip individuals with different perspectives and new tactics to deal with things.
Gambling addiction is not a flaw of character, and is not a sign that you are greedy or ungrateful. Gambling and betting addiction is as real as any other mental health condition.
Bear this in mind when seeking professional help: you owe it to yourself. This can be private or via government healthcare services (usually free).
This is to subsidise the lack of dopamine produced in your brain because of abstaining from gambling which you consciously or subconsciously relied on for a high.
A sudden plummet in dopamine may lead to anxiety or depression and in turn act as a hindrance to recovery.
This may be allowing a trusted advisor to take care of your finances in order the minimise the chances of a relapse.
On the other hand, if your gambling isn’t yet problematic, but you worry things could go that way, things such as only bringing cash to betting shops or limiting the amount you bet could be strategies to put in place.
Alternatives to gambling
So, we’ve discussed how and why one becomes addicted to gambling; the reward system; the squirts of dopamine, and waves of pleasure.
But the underlying reason your gambling may only be known to you; suppression of emotions, escapism, boredom, pain relief – so it’s important to substitute what you try to get from gambling with something else.
- Adrenaline rush – Try adventure sports or something new, such as rock climbing
- Social anxiety, shyness – Join a class to teach you how to meet people and join clubs of interest
- Boredom – Identify your strength and hobbies, join groups that put these things to work such as volunteer work; activities with your children; identify new interests and hobbies
- Relaxation – Practice mindfulness; go for walk; exercise; walk the dog; listen to relaxing music
- Attempt to solve money problems – seek financial help. There are many free financial helplines and organisations who are extremely helpful
- Betting shops – Self-exclusion is whereby the person voluntarily excludes themselves from entering betting shops. Current statistics show that over 42,000 people have used self-exclusion in betting shops to aid their recovery in gambling addiction. 
- Internet – There are numerous ‘block packages’ available online that make the user unable to access certain websites. For example, anything not suitable for over 18s. There is various software to choose from including NetNanny, Gamblock, and Betfilter
How can we help?
At ADT Healthcare, we have years of experience in supporting people with a variety of addictions. Our rehab clinic offers the following benefits:
- Detox with medical assistance and supervision
- Inpatient treatment which covers accommodation, leisure facilities, food and therapy
- An environment focused on support, nurturing and care
- Individual treatment plans covering CBT, relapse prevention, DBT, individual counselling, family therapy, group therapy, and holistic therapy
- 12 months free aftercare once you leave the facility
- Access to 12 step programmes
Ready to get help?
At ADT Healthcare, we offer advice and guidance on all things addiction, recovery, substance abuse, and mental health. Call us now on 0800 088 66 86 to learn more.
About the author:
Jon writes for ADT Healthcare and a number of other websites. Jon graduated with a degree in psychology in 1992. Jon has been in recovery for 19 years.