Pathological Gambling


Gambling involves placing a bet on something uncertain, such as a future contingent event not under the actor’s control or influence, in exchange for money or other things of value. People with gambling problems can develop a variety of mental health symptoms and social, emotional and occupational consequences. There are different reasons for a person to gamble, including recreational interest, diminished mathematical skills, poor judgment, cognitive distortions and moral turpitude. The social, cultural and family context in which a person lives can also influence the way they think about gambling activity and what constitutes problem behaviour.

People with pathological gambling often experience a great deal of distress, but they may struggle to acknowledge their problem and seek help. Some try to hide their gambling activity, lying about how much they spend or how often they gamble. Others have a hard time accepting that they have a gambling disorder, and some even go as far as hiding money and assets from their families.

Problem gambling is linked to changes in the brain’s reward system, resulting in increased pleasure with risk-taking and an inability to control impulses. These changes can be triggered by genetic factors, as well as environmental influences such as the community’s views on gambling activity and what constitutes a problem.

When you gamble, your body releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel excited. The brain’s reward pathway is activated when you win a bet, but the same dopamine response occurs when you lose – and this is one reason why it’s so difficult to stop gambling once you’ve started.

The current DSM-III criteria for pathological gambling highlight the similarities between it and substance dependence: a preoccupation with gambling (e.g., thinking about previous gambling experiences or planning the next gamble), a tendency to lose control of gambling, and withdrawal (restlessness or irritability when trying to cut down or stop gambling). In addition, pathological gamblers may have significant financial difficulties, jeopardize their employment or educational prospects, or suffer from other consequences such as depression or anxiety caused by their gambling behaviour.

While it’s impossible to completely stop gambling, there are ways to help you reduce your gambling and increase your recovery chances. These include strengthening your support network, identifying triggers and avoiding places where you can gamble, making healthier lifestyle choices, and seeking help from a peer support group such as Gamblers Anonymous, which is based on the 12-step model of Alcoholics Anonymous.

If you’re worried about your gambling, get help. There are many organisations that offer advice, assistance and counselling for people with gambling disorders – in both the public and private sectors. Some services provide residential or inpatient treatment, especially for those with severe gambling disorders who are unable to avoid gambling without around-the-clock support. These services can be free and confidential. You can also find information about self-help groups, such as Gamblers Anonymous and the Responsible Gambling Council. These support networks can be particularly helpful if your family and friends don’t understand or support your problem.