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What Causes Gambling Addiction?
Gambling addiction—also known as gambling disorder or pathological gambling—is believed to be caused by a mixture of genetics, existing medical issues, and environmental factors like influence from family or friends.
As the risk of losing money increases, the emotional highs of winning can be intense. Because gambling activates the reward system in the brain, addicts often experience a sort of “high” when they gamble thanks to the repeated release of dopamine.
How Gambling Affects the Brain
Gambling activates structures in the brain called the reward system, which is powered by dopamine. Dopamine plays a huge role in how and when we feel pleasure.
When you experience something rewarding like eating delicious food, having sex, or other physical stimuli, the reward system is triggered, and dopamine is released. However, the reward system isn’t perfect and can easily be abused.
While some drugs can chemically activate this reward system, certain repeated behaviors can achieve the same result. Over time, the brain becomes dependent on the flood of dopamine and cannot function properly without it, causing intense cravings common in substance abuse.
Why Gambling Can Turn Into an Addiction
There are many ways gambling can become an addiction.
For example, some people are genetically predisposed to addiction and are at risk of developing a gambling problem after even single exposure. For others, gambling may have been normalized and even encouraged while growing up.
In addition, superstition plays a significant role in gambling due to the luck element. Addicts may struggle to stop for fear they will miss out on the next jackpot or firmly believe their big win is just a game away.
Between this mysticism and the claims that gambling helps people cope with stress or mental illness, many individuals fall victim to the misguided belief they will stop once they win big, unaware they have formed an addiction.
Risk Factors in Developing Gambling Addiction
While anyone can develop a gambling addiction under the right circumstances, certain factors may put you at greater risk for addiction.
Common risk factors for gambling addiction include:
- Age: Gambling occurs more in younger and middle-aged people.
- Sex: Studies show gambling addiction is more common in men than women; however, women with gambling addiction typically start later in life and become addicted more quickly.
- Genetics: Certain genetic traits have been linked to addiction and can be passed down through genes from your parents, putting you at greater risk of developing an addiction.
- Personality characteristics: People who are highly competitive, a workaholic, impulsive, restless, or easily bored could be at higher risk of gambling addiction.
- Family or friend influences: If your loved ones have a gambling habit, you’re also more likely to have one as well.
- Medications: Drugs used to treat Parkinson’s disease and restless legs syndrome have a rare side effect that may result in compulsive behaviors in some people, including gambling.
- Mental illness: Gambling addicts often also have mental health conditions. Common mental illnesses associated with gambling addiction include:
How to Recognize Gambling Addiction
Like drug addiction, compulsive gamblers can be very adept at hiding their addiction. Therefore, knowing the signs of gambling addiction is vital to avoiding the life-ruining consequences for yourself or a loved one.
Common signs of gambling addiction include:
- Requiring higher amounts of money to gamble with to achieve the same thrill or “high”
- Being preoccupied with gambling and how to get more money for gambling
- Attempting to get back lost money by gambling more (usually called “chasing losses”)
- Being unable to control, cut back, or stop gambling, even if you want to
- Risking important relationships, jobs, or school or work opportunities because of gambling
- Running into financial problems as a result of gambling
- Gambling to escape problems or relieve symptoms like anxiety or depression
- Lying or misleading family members and friends to conceal the extent of your gambling
- Feeling irritable or upset when you try to cut down or stop gambling
- Asking loved ones to help you with money problems or legal problems because of your gambling
Can Gambling Addiction Be Prevented?
Gambling addiction can be prevented when the right precautions are taken.
While the most obvious way to prevent addiction is to avoid gambling altogether, being aware of any addiction in your family history can help you be more aware of your personal risks.
Other ways to prevent gambling addiction include:
- Avoiding the consumption of alcohol or mind-altering substances while gambling
- Setting money limits for yourself (i.e., leaving your credit card at home, only using a set amount of cash, etc.)
- Setting time limits for yourself
- Establishing accountability with a trusted friend
- Understand common gambling myths and know your odds (remember: everything is random, even if it seems like it’s not)
- Treat gambling as fun entertainment only, not the means to an end or a way to cope
Getting Help for an Addiction to Gambling
Although gambling addictions can be devastating for everyone involved, the good news is that many effective, evidence-based addiction treatment options are available for gambling disorders.
Inpatient care (i.e., residential rehab) is rarely needed for gambling disorders, but it is an option. Individuals may also opt to sign up for an outpatient gambling addiction program.
However, psychotherapy is the first line of treatment for gambling disorder—with or without rehab. The most common form of psychotherapy for treating gambling addiction is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
CBT helps patients identify the negative thoughts and beliefs that led to their addictive gambling behavior in the first place and develop strategies to avoid those pitfalls in the future.
Support groups like Gamblers Anonymous, National Council on Problem Gambling, and Gam-Anon can help gambling addicts connect with their peers to increase accountability and camaraderie during treatment and recovery.
In addition, countless self-help books and apps are dedicated to supporting problem gambling and addiction. A general search from your smartphone or bookstore will deliver many results, so you can find one that best suits your needs.
As for medications, there are not currently any FDA-approved drugs for the treatment of gambling disorder. However, many addicts with co-occurring mental illnesses may benefit from drugs that target symptoms that led to their gambling problem, such as antidepressants.
Get Help for a Gambling Problem Near You
Are you or a loved one living with a gambling addiction? Though treating a gambling disorder may feel impossible, full recovery is possible with the right treatment options and support system.
In many cases, working with a licensed therapist or mental health professional can help you on the path to recovery.
You can also find an addiction center near you specializing in gambling addiction by using SAMHSA’s online treatment locator or calling 1-800-662-4357 (HELP).
In addition, compulsive gamblers and family members or friends of gambling addicts can use the National Council on Problem Gambling Helpline at 1-800-522-4700. They offer confidential support 24 hours a day.
FAQs About Gambling Addiction Causes
What causes gambling addiction?
A mixture of genetic and environmental factors causes gambling addiction. People with a history of addiction in their family or who were exposed to gambling by a friend or family member are at an elevated risk of developing a gambling disorder.
Aside from these factors, the brain’s reward system and the release of dopamine are responsible for the chemical side of gambling addiction.
Each time you gamble activates the reward system and triggers the pleasurable feelings from dopamine. Over time, you can become dependent on this feeling and crave it.
What are the three different types of gamblers?
The three common types of gamblers include the professional gambler, the social gambler, and the problem gambler.
Professional gamblers are typically cautious, patient, and not impulsive, relying on skilled calculations to win big.
Social gamblers, on the other hand, only engage in gambling for fun social outings. This type of gambling is generally just entertainment for the social gambler. They have no strong desire to win and instead focuses on having fun.
Problem gamblers, as the name would suggest, are most at risk of developing a gambling disorder. They are often impulsive and focus on more luck-based games rather than skilled-based games.
Many problem gamblers will gamble to escape stress or chase that elusive win at whatever cost.
How do you stop the urge to gamble?
Stopping the urge to gamble is difficult but can be done with the right treatment and support system. The best way to stop the urge to gamble is to work with a therapist on strategies to cope with cravings and instead focus on healthy, productive activities.
For many gambling addicts, impulsivity is a huge component of their illness. Some addicts have found success by simply waiting out the impulsive urge until it passes or distracting themselves with another activity.
Is gambling addiction a mental illness?
Yes, gambling addiction is a mental illness.
American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition) classifies gambling addiction or gambling disorder as an impulse-control disorder.
The DSM-5 also states that gambling disorder can be incredibly damaging to psychological and physical health if left untreated.
Who is at risk for developing gambling addiction?
Individuals with a family history of addiction or raised in an environment where gambling was encouraged are at elevated risk of developing a gambling addiction. In addition, other factors like age, gender, mental health problems, and certain personality traits can also increase your risk.
What are the most addictive forms of gambling?
Online gambling, like internet slot machines and virtual casino games, is the most addictive type of gambling due to its continuous games, high reward frequency, and stimulating visuals. There is also an expected rise due to the legalization and expansion of mobile app sports betting.
Does gambling always lead to addiction?
Not always. For many people, gambling is simply a fun social outing or form of entertainment they only do occasionally.
However, people with genetic or environmental risk factors, co-occurring mental illnesses, or certain personality traits may want to set limits in place for themselves or avoid gambling altogether.
Why do people gamble?
Reasons for gambling will vary from person to person, but common reasons for gambling include:
- Social outings
- Relaxing and having fun
- Making money
- Coping with stress or trauma
- An urge to take risks