Just like any other addiction, gambling addiction can be harmful and extremely difficult to control.
Gambling addicts, the most extreme form of “problem gamblers”, may get an inexplicable rush when it comes to winning, chasing back their losses or simply playing games which involve betting and winning money.
Just because gambling is not a consumable substance like recreational drugs or alcohol, doesn't mean it is any less addictive. The reason we become addicted to things is down to a chemical in our brains known as dopamine.
In layman’s terms, dopamine is linked to our “reward” system – rather than just making us feel good, we get a sense of reward when we engage in a particular activity, which therefore encourages us to take part in this activity again.
Simple rewards like eating chocolate may promote this “rush”, but in more extreme circumstances, such as recreational drugs or the rush of gambling, we can be incentivised to take part in the same destructive behaviour time and again.
Genetically speaking, some of us are more prone to gambling addictions than others. That’s because some of us have what’s known as an “under-active” brain reward system, whereby our prefrontal cortex is not activated as much as other people’s.
These people actively need to seek more rewards in order to feel satisfied, which is why a simple gambling win can lead to an addictive need to trigger this reward system.
Furthermore, by compulsively engaging in habits, we can effectively build up a “tolerance” to these rewards, which lessens our reward response – therefore, we need to do it more often to generate the same feeling of reward than we had before.
Though gambling addiction can re-wire our brains in the same way that drugs or alcohol do, the good news is that these addictive behaviours can be controlled.
We may never truly eliminate the “urge” altogether – after all, it is genetically wired within us – but we can change our behaviours and learn triggers to help us cope with the urges.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) involves identifying the thought processes that gambling addicts go through, for example, how they feel when they win, or the misperceptions they have that continuing play will increase their chances of winning.
CBT helps to identify the causes of these destructive thought processes and change them, encouraging addicts to understand that they will not be rewarded as highly as they think. CBT has proven extremely effective in a variety of psychological problems, simply by changing our way of thinking.
Group or individual counselling is a great way of identifying the triggers that lead addicts to gamble. By communicating the issues openly with other people, addicts can view their problem from somebody else’s perspective and understand that the reward may not be as great as they are wired to think so.
Working with those who are affected by gambling, for example, an addict’s loved ones, can also help gamblers to understand the impacts that their behaviour is having on others.
Addictions can be very insular illnesses, and counselling helps sufferers to open up and see their problem with a new perspective.
Depending on how much disposable income addicts have to spend on treatment, rehabilitation centres can provide 24/7 support. These vary in quality and access to mental health professionals, but the benefit of these is round the clock care and a mixture of therapy sessions to address the underlying cause.
There are many organisations out there that can help addicts get on their way to recovery. Starting with your gambling operator’s responsible gambling policy, there may be links on their website to appropriate organisations, such as:
GamCare – this provides helplines, forums, online chat services and self-assessment tools in a completely confidential environment
The National Gambling Helpline – a free phone line open from 8am to midnight seven days a week for both gamblers and their families
Mind – a mental health charity that helps with all addictive illnesses
BeGambleAware – a free online resource with information on where you can find help.
There are also rehabilitation centres such as The Priory, but a good place to start is to speak to a helpline or forum, who can help you with your first course of action.
Of course, while some addictions are simply unavoidable, there are measures you can take to prevent yourself from becoming addicted to gambling.
These involve your own initiative, the help of loved ones and even help from the gambling operators themselves.
It’s important not only to limit your money but your time – try to give yourself certain periods of the day in which to “wind down” or impose a weekly spending limit. If this doesn’t help, you can also ask your gambling operator.
These come in three basic tiers – “reality checks”, which let players know periodically how long they have been gambling, “time-outs”, which prevent players from playing from one day up to six weeks, and self-exclusion, which prevents account logins for a period of six months or more.
Very often, we can get so caught up in an addiction we don’t know who we are affecting, so speak to a loved one who can give you an honest account of how much time you are spending and how this is impacting their welfare.
Like all addictions, gambling addiction is an illness, and it can feel defeatist to admit that the urge to gamble may never really go away.
However, by seeking professional help, and crucially, admitting they have a problem, thousands of addicts are on their way to recovery and controlling the problem.
Remember, only bet with reputable gambling operators who have a clear responsible gambling policy. This could be instrumental in preventing addictive behaviours and will ensure you enjoy gambling in a controlled manner.
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