What Is a Gambling Addiction?

It is estimated that around two million people in the U.S. are addicted to gambling, and that for as many as 20 million the habit seriously interferes with work and social life. Gambling is when an individual risks something of value in the hope of getting something of even greater value. Gambling addiction is the uncontrollable urge to continue gambling despite the toll it takes on one’s life. Gambling is addictive because it stimulates the brain’s reward system much like drugs or alcohol can. In fact, gambling addiction is the most common impulse control disorder worldwide.

There are many factors that can contribute to the development of a gambling addiction, including: desperation for money, the “high” that comes from the thrill of betting, and the intoxicating atmosphere of the gambling scene.

In the past, the psychiatric community generally regarded gambling as a compulsion rather than an addiction, i.e. a behavior primarily motivated by an intense urge rather than physical necessity. However, as studies revealed that gambling addiction is far more similar to alcoholism and drug addiction than originally thought, the American Psychiatric Association made the decision to officially recognize gambling as an addiction in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 2013.

How Gambling Affects the Brain

Similar to addictive substances like meth and cocaine,, gambling addiction is associated with release of dopamine within the brain. Addictive substances affect the brain’s reward system and release up to 10 times the normal amount of dopamine. Continuous use then causes the body to develop a tolerance, as natural production of dopamine is inhibited and the body needs more and more of the stimulating substance in order to receive the same rush.

Without a doubt, we know it’s an actual brain disease. That’s very different from 20 years ago when people saw it as an issue of morality, greed, and lack of willpower. There are brain changes that explain why people can’t stop.- Dr. Timothy Fong, Addiction Expert and Co-Director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program

Just as those suffering from substance use disorders require increasingly strong hits to get high or increasingly larger amounts of alcohol to get drunk, gambling addicts pursue riskier ventures and bet increasingly larger amounts of money to receive the same pleasure they once did. Additionally, research shows that pathological gamblers and drug users share many of the same genetic predispositions for impulsivity and reward seeking. Furthermore, both those suffering from substance abuse problems and compulsive gamblers endure symptoms of withdrawal when attempting to quit.

Signs and Symptoms of Gambling Addiction

The defining element of a gambling addiction is that people become completely absorbed in specific gambling activities and then pursue them in a compulsive manner, despite the potential negative consequences. Those suffering from a gambling addiction often describe a sense of loss of control in which they believe they are incapable of avoiding or stopping gambling.

Common signs of gambling addiction include:

  • Having an obsessive preoccupation with gambling
  • Needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money just to get the same thrill
  • Unsuccessfully attempting to control, cut back, or stop gambling
  • Feeling restless or irritable when unable to gamble
  • Gambling to escape problems or relieve feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, or depression
  • Attempting to get back lost money by gambling more
  • Jeopardizing or losing important relationships or school/work opportunities because of gambling
  • Resorting to theft or fraud to get gambling money

Unlike causal gamblers, people addicted to gambling cannot simply stop when losing or set a loss limit; they are compelled to keep playing to try to recover their money. In many cases, the person loses more than intended, feels bad about the amount of money lost, and then tries to recoup the losses by gambling even more, which consequently leads to even more money lost. This destructive cycle leads to many negative consequences and can have a serious impact on an individual’s physical, emotional, and financial health.