Whether it’s buying lottery tickets, playing blackjack, betting on a horse race or slot machines at a casino, gambling involves risking something of value (usually money) for the hope of winning a prize. Regardless of the amount, gambling can lead to serious financial and social problems.
Gambling may be considered an addictive behavior because it causes a person to spend more time and money on the activity than they should, and it interferes with their daily life and relationships. In addition, it can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. Gambling addiction can also lead to depression and anxiety, which are often co-occurring disorders that require treatment.
Pathological gambling (PG) is a severe form of problem gambling that is characterized by persistent and recurrent maladaptive patterns of behaviors. PG is usually recognized in early adulthood, though the disorder tends to develop more rapidly in men than in women. PG is most commonly associated with strategic or face-to-face forms of gambling, such as poker or blackjack, but can also be found in nonstrategic forms, such as video games or bingo.
Physiologically, the act of gambling is associated with arousal, and environmental cues such as flashing lights and the sound of coins clinking together become conditioned stimuli through Pavlovian processes. In addition, gambling stimulates the brain’s reward system and produces a feeling of pleasure, which is linked to arousal and the release of dopamine. Over time, this creates a “reward dependency” wherein the gambler seeks to experience the same highs again and again.
Although there are no FDA-approved medications to treat gambling disorders, psychotherapy—a term that encompasses several techniques—can help. This type of treatment teaches people how to recognize and change unhealthy thoughts, emotions and behaviors. In addition, it can address any underlying mood conditions, such as depression or anxiety, that may be contributing to the gambling behavior.
Other strategies to help overcome a gambling problem include strengthening your support network, finding healthy ways to relieve boredom and avoiding situations that trigger gambling behaviors. You can try spending time with friends who don’t gamble, joining a sports team or book club, taking an education class or volunteering for a good cause. You can also join a peer support group like Gamblers Anonymous, which is based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and provides guidance and encouragement from other former gamblers who have successfully overcome their addictions. Lastly, you can seek out counseling—which can be especially helpful for those with co-occurring mental health disorders.