Gambling is any game or activity in which a person stakes something of value (usually money) with the intention of winning a prize. It may be as simple as placing a bet on a football match or playing the pokies. For some people gambling is more than a harmless pastime, and they are at risk of developing an addiction to the activity.
A person who is addicted to gambling may engage in any of the following behaviours:
Often gamblers have difficulty recognizing that they are struggling with an addiction. They can be secretive about their habits, lie to friends and family members, and try to conceal their activities by covering up debts or using credit cards. Some may also be prone to stealing or engaging in other illegal activities to finance their gambling. Some may even jeopardize a job, education or relationship in order to continue gambling.
It is important to understand why a person gambles in order to help them break the habit. Many people gamble for social reasons, or as a way to relieve boredom or stress. When a person gambles, their brain releases a chemical called dopamine that makes them feel good. This can lead to a cycle of behavior where the person feels they need to gamble in order to feel good. There are other healthier ways to relieve boredom or stress, such as exercising, spending time with friends who do not gamble, or practicing relaxation techniques.
There are a number of different types of treatment for gambling disorder. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not approve any medications to treat the disorder, but psychotherapy can be an effective tool for addressing unhealthy thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Psychotherapy involves working with a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or clinical social worker, to identify and change negative feelings, thoughts and behaviors that contribute to the problem.
Research has shown that a combination of factors can make it difficult for a person to stop gambling. These include a genetic predisposition to reward-seeking behaviour and impulsivity, as well as an underactive reward system in the brain. Other contributing factors include a culture that values gambling, the presence of coexisting mental health conditions and the ability to delay gratification.
A growing body of evidence suggests that pathological gambling should be classified as an impulse control disorder, similar to other compulsions such as kleptomania and trichotillomania (hair pulling). In fact, the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has moved pathological gambling into the same chapter as other addictive disorders. The move was based on new scientific understanding of the biological underpinnings of addiction. It is important to remember that the decision to classify pathological gambling as an addiction was not taken lightly. It was the result of years of debate and careful deliberation. Although the move has not yet been widely embraced by psychiatrists, it is expected to eventually have significant impacts on treatment and policy.