Gambling offers the brain a reward in the form of a dopamine hit. This repeated reward is short lived and trains the brain to want more. Many people gamble to feel good. It can help to relieve anxiety and acts as a distraction from the troubles of daily life. Gambling is so addictive because it alters the wiring and chemistry in the brain. The longer you gamble, the more you crave it. To complicate matters, gamblers often have genetic or psychological dispositions that make them prone to gambling too much.
Rewarding experiences – such as receiving a compliment, having sex, accomplishing a task, or winning a game – cause our brain to send signals via neurotransmitters: chemical messengers that either stimulate or depress neurons in the brain. When drugs are taken, they create a high by increasing the dopamine that’s released in the reward system up to 10 times more than the amount natural rewarding experiences would generate. This also happens when gambling.
Research shows that problem gamblers and drug addicts often have genetic predispositions for reward-seeking behaviours and impulsivity. The two main ones are:
- An underactive brain reward system.
- Less activation of the prefrontal cortex.
Having an underactive brain reward system means that the individual doesn’t experience the same level of euphoria and pleasure from naturally-rewarding experiences as the average person does. They are therefore drawn to activities that stimulate reward pathways more than usual; ones that are enough to make them feel a satisfactory amount of euphoria and pleasure – for example, the high that taking drugs or gambling creates.
The prefrontal cortex is an area of our brain involved in decision-making, controlling impulses, and cognitive control, and studies have revealed that problem gamblers and drug addicts had less activation of the prefrontal cortex than the average person.
Thus, controlling their impulse to throw the dice or pull the lever of a slot machine just one more time is significantly harder for them. Impulsivity is in their nature and they have difficulty making decisions that assess the long-term impact of their short-term actions.
These predispositions make it highly likely that the individual keeps gambling once they’ve started and experienced their first win or a series of wins. They’ve activated their reward system and got a kick of dopamine that they’re not used to getting, so they keep going on impulse to experience the euphoria again.
Building up a tolerance
When the brain is being overstimulated by excessive drug use or gambling, the brain boosts its defensive reaction which makes the reward system less efficient. The number of dopamine receptors is reduced; less dopamine goes through the brain and therefore the level of pleasure the individual experiences is reduced. Repeated, excessive stimulation leads to the brain developing a stronger, longer-lasting resistance to the stimulant.
There are five psychological factors that could affect an at-risk gambler and compel them to keep playing to the point where it becomes an addiction:
- Partial reinforcement – the reward isn’t given (money) consistently.
- Availability heuristic – assuming they will win.
- Gambler’s fallacy – mistakenly believing chances of winning increase the longer you gamble.
- Illusion of control – feeling in control of your actions. Often you aren’t. Urges compel you to continue.
- Loss aversion – more sensitive to loss than gain.
Suicide factors for compulsive gamblers
People with a gambling addiction are 15 times more likely to take their own life, according to the largest study of its kind, prompting calls for swifter action by the government to tackle betting addiction.
The study found that suicide rates increased 19-fold among men between the ages of 20 and 49 if they had a gambling problem and by 15 times among men and women of all ages.
The authors of the research said that while the causes of suicide were complex and likely to involve more than one factor, their work indicated gambling disorders were associated with far higher than average rates of suicide. If a subject was diagnosed with depression as well as a gambling disorder, the likelihood of suicide increased even further but the risk did not appear to rise if substance misuse was added.
How to move away from a gambling addiction
Plan ahead so that there aren’t periods of boredom. It’s harder to stop when you have too much time on your hands.
Try to be mindful – live in the present moment and don’t think too far ahead.
Do something different – your brain has become used to gambling. Try a completely new activity.
Find better ways to cope with stress – seeing a counsellor can help you to cope with stress and not gamble as a way to cope.
Remind yourself of how gambling ultimately makes you feel – it’s a guilty feeling, it’s negative. The highs are short-lived.
Be self aware and know when you are weaker and in need of gambling. Try to find ways to reinforce your positive thinking but keeping busy and planning ahead.
Gratitude – think about what is good in your life at the moment.
If you have a gambling addiction: you could contact Gamstop