There’s something in human nature that is drawn to gambling. Even children bet on who can hold their breath the longest or who will dare to jump over a small stream. It’s no wonder casinos and betting shops do big business. As adults, we still crave the buzz, the adrenaline, the thrill of winning. Fully aware of the house edge and the odds stacked high against us, we return again and again.

Most people can enjoy a little recreational gambling now and then – no harm, no fuss. For others, gambling becomes more than a hobby. It crosses the line into obsession, compulsion, and even addiction. Gambling addicts lose friendships, family relationships, careers, and prosperity in pursuit of that winning thrill. 

Here’s a quick overview of the causes of gambling addiction, the consequences, the connection to mental health, and steps that you can take to help yourself or someone you care about.

The Cause of Gambling Addiction

Many factors combine to make someone vulnerable to gambling addiction. Some are likely to be environmental, while others are biological and genetic. At this point, medical professionals do not know how to predict whether a certain patient will be able to gamble harmlessly as a hobby or fall into a gambling disorder.

Gambling addiction seems to be related to the human tendency to bet and the pleasure we take in winning. Our brains respond chemically to winning a bet, giving us a jolt of pleasure. Researchers say it is those jolts, not gambling itself, that problem gamblers are addicted to.

Winning a slot-machine jackpot sends a signal to neurons in our brains. The neurons release a neurotransmitter called 3,4-dihydroxyphenethylamine, or dopamine. Dopamine has two main effects on the brain. The first is simple: It signals other neurons to release more dopamine. 

It is the second effect that concerns us. In popular culture, dopamine is thought to cause feelings of pleasure. Brain researchers offer a more nuanced view. According to the Mayo Clinic, dopamine underscores the “perceived motivational prominence” – the desirability or undesirability – of something we have just experienced. It makes us more likely to avoid things we don’t like and more likely to pursue things that give us pleasure. It is dopamine that makes winning a poker pot feel good and it is dopamine that makes us want to play more hands in hopes of another win.

In 2010, researchers at Denmark’s Aarhus University Hospital conducted a study of problem gamblers. The researchers used PET scans to monitor gamblers’ brains. “Pathological gamblers often continue gambling despite losses,” they wrote, “[a behavior] known as ‘chasing one’s losses.’ We, therefore, hypothesized that losing money would be associated with increased dopamine release.” The hypothesis was supported by observations, which confirmed that losing money, as well as winning, leads to the release of dopamine in the brains of gambling addicts. 

The Consequences of Gambling Addiction

Online gambling has made problem gambling harder to control. While it was once possible to keep gambling addicts away from casinos and betting parlors, now opportunities to bet are always as near as the closest cell phone or Wi-Fi connection.

When gambling spirals out of control it is almost certain to affect your finances, your career, your health, and your personal relationships. According to the Toronto, Canada, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, danger signs include missing family events, overeating or loss of appetite, conflicts over money, increased drug and alcohol use, neglecting children, lying or stealing to pay for gambling, unexplained absences, emotional withdrawal, mood swings, depression, money shortages, headaches, and trouble sleeping.

If you are worried that one of your loved ones is at risk of developing a gambling addiction, or you feel that you are in danger, then you should seek expert advice. Reputable gambling websites include links to the websites of professional organizations that can help you figure out what to do next and where to receive proper help.

How Mental Health is Connected to Gambling

Gambling and mental health problems can reinforce each other. This means that the state of your mental health can cause you to seek out gambling as a release or escape, and gambling can damage your mental health

Many people seem genetically predisposed to addiction. If you have a family history of addiction, you should be cautious about alcohol, drugs, and betting. 

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that oversees impulse control, helping us maintain our daily lives as somewhat rational creatures. People whose cortices are not as chemically active may be more prone to making decisions on a whim rather than undertaking cautious, rational thought. They push aside thoughts of long-term consequences in favor of short-term pleasures. This is a recipe for addiction.

It’s worth mentioning that dopamine’s effects diminish after time. That could mean that we stop feeling compelled to gamble. In addicts, it means that it takes a bigger win or loss to deliver the thrill they need.

Rationalization and justifications are common as problem gamblers dig themselves deeper into debt. They may come to believe that only a big win can get them out of financial trouble. Or they may convince themselves that “in for a penny, in for a pound” is profound financial advice.

Over time, gambling problems take a toll on the gambler’s self-esteem and mental health. As the addiction grows, so does the impact on the gambler’s finances. Addicts try, often successfully, to keep their gambling troubles hidden. Spouses and family members are often unaware of the severity of the situation until debt collectors are at the door. 

If gambling is affecting your finances, your personal relationships, your wellness, or your mental health, then it’s time to speak to your loved ones about getting help.

Conclusion

Gambling can be a pleasurable pastime that many of us enjoy harmlessly. But we must remember the risk of addiction and be clear-eyed about the dangers. A gambling problem can have severe consequences that extend far beyond your empty pockets. When the gratification that you once received from gambling starts to diminish, it’s time to walk away from the computer, casino, or betting shop, and put your well-being first. 

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