Gambling addiction is a disorder involving the inability to stop, or the need to continue in riskier situations, gambling behaviors.
 
This addiction is also sometimes referred to as compulsive gambling, problem gambling, or pathological gambling. People with a gambling addiction often see how destructive the problem is to their finances and families, and they typically feel guilty about the problems they are causing, but they are still unable to stop. Although medical researchers are beginning to differentiate between types of gambling addiction based on underlying psychological factors, gambling addiction is still a relatively new diagnosis.

Symptoms of gambling addiction include:

  • Getting a thrill or rush from taking big risks while gambling
  • Needing to increase the size of the risk, often financial, to feel the thrill of gambling
  • Thinking about gambling to the detriment of other activities
  • Taking time off work or away from family and friends to gamble
  • Hiding evidence of gambling from family or friends
  • Feeling guilty or depressed after gambling
  • Borrowing large amounts of money, selling precious objects like property, or stealing to fund gambling bets
  • Inability to stick to personal limits or avoid gambling

While around 85 percent of American adults have gambled at least once in their lives, gambling only becomes compulsive for around 5 percent of the population, and turns into an addiction in 2-3 percent of the American adult population. Current research suggests that gambling addiction affects men more than women, but an increasing number of women are being diagnosed with the addiction. Currently, a little over a quarter of people who suffer from gambling addiction are female, and these women tend to become addicted to gambling later in life (usually in their mid to late 30s), suffer from depression rather than other comorbid psychological conditions, and their symptoms tend to get worse faster.

A great deal of research is being conducted to determine underlying causes of all kinds of addictions, including gambling addiction. Childhood trauma can change the shape and chemical makeup of the brain, but genetic factors or physical distortions of the brain that pre-exist could also increase an individual’s chances of becoming addicted to anything, from a behavior to a substance. Although causes are only beginning to be understood, a person who is hypersensitive to reward stimuli but responds in an average way to failure or lack of reward, is more likely to develop gambling addiction due to impulse control problems.

Risk Factors for Developing Gambling Addiction

There are several risk factors for developing a gambling addiction, and these often involve the individual having an underlying or comorbid (occurring at the same time) psychological condition.

The most common comorbid psychological conditions associated with gambling addiction are:

  • Depression: When the brain has low levels of serotonin due to depression, the individual is more likely to become involved in other activities that raise serotonin levels. Many of these activities, from substance abuse to gambling, become addictions. Alcoholism and drug abuse are most associated with depression as forms of self-medicating, but behavioral addictions like gambling addiction are also associated with this psychological condition.
  • Schizophrenia: Schizophrenics tend to suffer from delusions, paranoia, hallucinations, and anxiety, which distort the individual’s reality. This mental health disorder is not curable, but with better medications and therapy, those suffering from schizophrenia are able to manage their condition and live fulfilling lives. This condition is due in part to a serious imbalance of dopamine, which helps regulate the pleasure and punishment responses related to motivation in healthy brains. For people suffering from addiction and neurological conditions like schizophrenia, dopamine is dramatically imbalanced, so the sense of reward for effort becomes skewed in an unhealthy direction. People with schizophrenia are more likely to develop addictions to all types of behaviors, including substance abuse and gambling.
  • Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD): People who are unable to feel empathy or regard for the wellbeing of others in a society are often suffering from ASPD. They frequently turn to criminal activity because they do not understand legal lines defining property or bodily safety, and display recklessness, narcissism, belligerence, greed, and violence toward others. Although childhood environment is the main factor contributing to ASPD, medical researchers believe that a serotonin imbalance is also a large cause of the disorder. People with ASPD often have addictions, especially to certain thrill-seeking or illegal behaviors. This includes gambling addiction.
  • Bipolar disorder: People with bipolar disorder vacillate between periods of mania and periods of depression. The highs of mania cause the individual to feel wonderful, productive, focused, and successful; periods of depression, which sometimes have psychotic features, lead the individual to feel hopeless, lost, and even suicidal. The need for more mood-stabilizing chemicals leads people with bipolar disorder into numerous addictive behaviors, from substance abuse to gambling. In cases where a bipolar individual has one addiction already, that person becomes even more likely to develop another addiction. Like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder is not curable, but it is very treatable with a combination of medication and therapy.

Other risk factors include:

  • Gender: Men are believed to be more susceptible to gambling addiction than women.
  • Age: Young and middle-aged people are more likely to develop gambling addiction than older adults.
  • Family history or influence: If there are other members of a person’s family with addiction problems, especially gambling addiction, the individual is more likely to develop gambling addiction.
  • Personality traits: People susceptible to behavioral addictions like gambling addiction react to stressful situations by creating more long-term stress. This can begin with a person being highly competitive or a “workaholic,” and that can lead into other addictions as a form of self-soothing.

One risk factor for gambling addiction that is a new outlier is medication used to treat Parkinson’s disease. One of the causes of Parkinson’s disease is a breakdown of neurons and transmitters in the brain, especially those that produce dopamine. As dopamine levels decrease, depression and physical symptoms like palsy increase. Medication used to treat Parkinson’s disease increases the amount of dopamine in the brain, which relieves symptoms, but can also cause a manic “high” that can lead to impulsive, compulsive, and addictive behaviors – most notoriously, gambling addiction.

Relationship between Gambling Addiction and Substance Abuse

Gambling addiction and substance abuse share many common characteristics. Current medical research examining genetic factors in both addictions show that people suffering from substance abuse problems and people suffering from gambling addiction issues tend to share genetic commonalities toward risk-taking and reward-seeking. People with substance addictions require larger doses of their drug to feel “high,” and people with gambling addictions tend to require larger bets or riskier ventures in order to feel a similar rush. When people with substance addictions quit, they undergo withdrawal symptoms, and so do people with gambling addictions. Neuroscientists have shown in some investigations that both substance abuse and gambling addiction also alter neural pathways in the same way.

One major difference between substance addiction and gambling addiction (or other behavioral addictions) is that people with gambling addiction tend to believe strongly that they will win, and this time will be different. This belief, which borders on delusion in some people with gambling addiction, persists even when repeated losses show that they are unlikely to win, or that they will not be able to win enough to negate the consequences of gambling large amounts. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) tends to work to change these types of behaviors and the thought processes that lead to them. While substance abuse, addiction, and dependence may involve denial as a defense mechanism, they do not involve cognitive distortion of risk and reward.

Underlying causes of gambling addiction, such as depression or bipolar disorder, can lead to other addictions, including substance abuse, as the individual attempts to self-medicate.

One study, conducted by Dr. Flora Matheson and published in ISRN Addiction, suggests that some people with substance abuse problems use gambling in an attempt to financially support their other addiction. While this does not work, the two addictions both cause a surge of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, reinforcing the behavior.

It is difficult to say whether a substance addiction can lead to a gambling addiction or vice versa, but current medical evidence suggests that underlying mental health problems, childhood trauma, and genetic factors can increase an individual’s risk of either, or both, conditions.

Treatment for Gambling Addiction with or without Substance Abuse

People who suffer from a gambling addiction usually benefit from CBT, which helps the individual unlearn addictive behaviors, and learn new skills to cope with risk and reward needs. When comorbid or underlying psychiatric conditions, like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or bipolar disorder, exist, then medications in conjunction with talk therapy have shown to be greatly beneficial as well.

In some cases, individuals need to change their environment in order to begin the process. Removing stresses and triggers can help individuals become more aware of their condition and begin the hard work of recovery. Inpatient treatment for gambling addiction is not uncommon, and it has helped some people struggling with gambling addiction form social bonds that can become great sources of support in ongoing recovery.