It is generally unknown in mainstream society that addiction can extend beyond substances such as drugs or alcohol. The chemicals that the human brain releases during a joyous event can be addicting just like a drug can be addicting. Gambling in particular subjects players to a potential for addiction, as it is a fairly easy activity with high payoff that can be easily repeated. Gambling addiction affects about six million people in the United States.
Gambling addicts exhibit many of the same symptoms as individuals with drug addictions. They experience a compulsion to gamble despite negative consequences on themselves or their family. People who are addicted to gambling develop “tolerance” similar to that of drug addicts, where they experience the need to place bets for increasing amounts of money to achieve the desired effect. Those with a gambling addiction are often preoccupied with gambling to the detriment of other hobbies or their ability to sleep soundly. Problem gamblers often borrow money from friends or family to pay for their addiction and may lie to conceal the extent of their gambling. Addicts continue gambling despite the desire to stop, attempts by friends or family to persuade them to stop, or financial difficulties. Severe cases of addiction can even cause withdrawal symptoms if gambling is stopped.
The causes of problem gambling are not completely understood, but a prevailing theory suggests it has a lot to do with brain chemistry. When a person wins at gambling, it releases serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain, creating a pleasant feeling. Addicts attempt to recreate that feeling by “chasing losses” – continuing to play to win back money lost, even after frequent and repetitive losses. This desperation often digs a deeper hole that the gambler feels they must get out of through more gambling. Problems gamblers feel that if they can get just one “big break”, their problems will be solved.
Like other addictions, treatment for gambling addiction involves therapy, medication, and support groups. Anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, and mood-stabilizing medications help alleviate the depression and anxiety associated with gambling addiction. Gamblers Anonymous is a support group similar to Alcoholics Anonymous that has developed a twelve-step program to help problem gamblers stop gambling. Therapy aims to reduce the urge to gamble through identifying thoughts that lead to gambling and developing coping mechanisms to stress.
To ensure successful recovery, a gambling addict might put control of their money in the hands of a spouse or other loved one. Problem gamblers are encouraged to close their credit cards and keep only small amounts of cash at a time. Recovering addicts also must avoid triggers, which can be anything from playing cards with friends to watching sporting events that they used to bet on. Other hobbies that take up the person’s time and relieve stress are recommended to help avoid the temptation to gamble, such as art, social groups, or outdoor activities.
If you believe your partner is addicted to gambling, encourage them to seek help without blaming or lecturing them. Set firm boundaries regarding money management and stick to them. It is also recommended that partners of gambling addicts seek therapy for themselves, either through a private therapist or a support group like Gam-Anon, which is designed to help spouses of gambling addicts.