For most people, the occasional game of chance is fun and harmless. The combination of risk and anticipated reward is sure to infuse you with a small rush of excitement, even when the odds are against you. Whether it’s playing poker with friends or betting on horse racing, many of us enjoy gambling as a social activity.
Like many other experiences – shopping, eating sugary foods, drinking alcohol, and so on – too much is too much. Excessive gambling can quickly transform from entertainment to dependence.
Gambling addiction – a spectrum of dependencies also known as pathological gambling, a gambling disorder, problem gambling, or compulsive gambling – is one of the world’s most common impulse-control disorders. Unlike casual gamblers, compulsive gamblers can’t control the urge to gamble, even if the negative consequences for them and their loved ones are apparent. Gambling addicts can’t stop playing even when the odds are against them. They can’t stop playing even when they absolutely can’t afford to lose.
Gambling addiction statistics from a recent YouGov survey commissioned by GambleAware found that 2.7% of adults living in the UK, or almost 1.4 million people, are problem gamblers. As soon as the results were published, experts advised caution, insisting that the true addiction rate is much lower. One of the industry’s most renowned regulators, the British Gambling Commission, cites a health survey showing a gambling addiction rate of 0.7%.
Types of Gambling Addiction
Gambling goes beyond cards, slot machines, and sports betting – buying a lottery ticket or making a bet with a friend also count. Gambling addictions are as varied as the games of chance gamblers love.
While many people enjoy the occasional game of chance without a risk of becoming addicted, others quickly surrender to the dangers of gambling and become compulsive players without even realising it.
Have you ever felt you’re in such dire financial straits that you have no choice but to risk what little you have in a last-ditch attempt to win a large sum of money? That’s how problem gamblers feel. Although compulsive gamblers often promise themselves and others that they will stop playing as soon as they break even, this getaway plan almost never works. More often, it leads to a vicious circle in which gamblers can’t help but wager even after a big win. The pattern repeats until the addict can’t break the habit without professional help.
Another type of compulsive gambling occurs when a player makes risky bets just for the adrenaline rush or emotional high. The resulting addiction is just the same.
According to gambling addiction stories, people from all walks of life can become victims of compulsive gambling. Movie stars like Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon; record-breaking athletes like Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, and Tiger Woods; and many other celebrity gamblers have dealt with this disorder.
We’ve established that any type of gambling can become problematic. However, certain forms of gambling have distinctive characteristics that can intensify the addiction and its consequences. For instance, recent studies reveal that fast game play is a significant risk factor. Games that come with a short time between placing a bet and learning the result – such as slot machines – present a higher risk for addictive players.
Causes of Gambling Addiction
A long list of factors contribute to compulsive gambling as an impulse control disorder. Problem gambling can be triggered by the drive to experience high levels of excitement, desperation for money, the entertaining but also intoxicating casino atmosphere, and the tempting social status of a successful gambler. No matter how it starts, once a betting or casino addiction develops, it is difficult or impossible to recover without the services of a professional.
Someone with a severe gambling problem may feel desperate to earn back what’s been lost. Once a person finally wins, and even if it’s a huge win, it’s almost never enough to cover the losses. And if it is, the temptation to place just one more bet, and one more after that, is irresistible. Problem gamblers rarely break even.
How Gambling Affects Your Body
From a medical point of view, wagering stimulates the brain’s reward system much like drugs or alcohol. Experts associate problem gambling with a dopamine release of up to 10 times the normal amount. Continuous exposure to high levels of dopamine can cause the body to develop tolerance and inhibit natural production of the hormone. That’s why, if you are addicted to gambling, your body needs more and more of the stimulating activity to get to the same level of excitement. Problem gamblers can’t help placing higher bets and pursuing riskier ventures. It’s the only way to recapture the pleasure they once experienced.
Recent studies have shown that compulsive gamblers and drug users share certain genetic predispositions related to reward-seeking and impulsivity. No matter how determined they may be to quit, members of both groups deal with withdrawal symptoms when trying to step away, whether they’re fighting drug addiction or betting addiction.
Signs of Gambling Addiction
Often referred to as a hidden illness, a gambling disorder lacks the obvious symptoms associated with drug or alcohol addiction. While compulsive gamblers often minimise or completely deny the problem – even to themselves – there are a few symptoms that indicate something is wrong. The most distinctive sign of a gambling problem is the feeling that you can’t stop. If you are always tempted to place just one more bet or you get anxious when thinking about quitting, it’s likely that you are addicted to gambling.
Here are some of the most common symptoms that indicate a gambling disorder:
- Having an obsessive preoccupation with gambling
- Risking increasing amounts of money just to get the same thrill
- Unsuccessfully attempting to control, cut back, or stop gambling
- Have an unsettled feeling when unable to gamble
- Gambling to relieve feelings of helplessness or to escape problems
- Attempting to get out of gambling debt by placing another bet
- Jeopardising important relationships or losing career opportunities
- Resorting to theft or fraud to get gambling money
- Feeling the need to be secretive about gambling
- Having family and friends worried about you
- Gambling even when you can’t afford to lose
The main difference between casual players and problem gamblers is the level of control they have over the activity. Unlike those who enjoy sports betting or poker nights with friends from time to time, gambling addicts are unable to set a limit or walk away even when they are losing. In other words, what defines a gambling disorder is that problem players become so absorbed in gambling activities that they pursue them compulsively and neglect or deny the negative consequences.