Whether buying a Lotto ticket, betting on the horses or playing the pokies, gambling involves risking money or something of value for an uncertain outcome. In some cases, it can cause harm. Taking a break from gambling and seeking support are ways to overcome it.
People gamble for many reasons: to get an adrenaline rush, socialise or escape from worries or stress. For some, the behaviour becomes out of control and they develop a problem. If you think you may have a gambling addiction, speak to your GP or visit the National Helpline. There are also support groups such as Gamblers Anonymous and self-help tips that can help you stop gambling.
Some people are genetically predisposed to thrill-seeking behaviours and impulsivity. Others experience biological changes in brain regions involved in making decisions and controlling impulses, such as an underactive reward system. The latter may affect their ability to weigh risks and rewards, leading to a lack of self-control when it comes to gambling.
The main factor that can trigger gambling is the brain’s reward centre, which releases dopamine when it anticipates a potential gain. This neurotransmitter makes us feel good when we do enjoyable activities such as sex, eating and drinking but also when we take risks, such as gambling.
Having too much free time can also lead to gambling problems. It can also be triggered by other conditions such as depression or anxiety, which can make you more vulnerable to harmful gambling habits. People with these mental health conditions can also be at increased risk of getting into debt and may turn to gambling as a way to cope.
Ten years ago, the idea that someone could become addicted to a habit like gambling the same as they can get hooked on a drug was controversial. Today, most experts agree that in some cases, gambling can indeed be addictive.
Research is ongoing to understand the nature of gambling addiction and how it can be treated. One approach is longitudinal – following the same group of people over several years, to identify the factors that influence their gambling. This type of study is expensive and challenging to set up, but it allows for the identification of patterns and relationships that might be missed with a single snapshot in time. Other approaches include family therapy, debt counselling and other specialist services. If you’re in financial difficulty, StepChange provides free, confidential debt advice. If you have thoughts of suicide or are feeling suicidal, call 999 or contact the Samaritans.