Gambling is an activity in which people stake something of value, such as money or possessions, on a game of chance with the expectation of winning a prize. It can take place in a variety of settings, including casinos, racetracks, church halls and even online. It is a common pastime for many adults and some children, but it can be dangerous if done to the point of addiction. In the United States, more than two million people have an addiction to gambling. In addition to the financial cost, this problem can interfere with work, school and family responsibilities.
Although most people who gamble do so without problems, a small percentage of individuals develop pathological gambling, characterized by a persistent and recurrent pattern of betting behavior that is associated with distress or impairment. The disorder is most often seen in persons with low incomes, and men outnumber women in those who have it. A new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) places gambling disorder in a category of behavioral addictions, reflecting growing evidence that it shares some characteristics with substance-related disorders in terms of brain origin, comorbidity, physiology and treatment.
In the human brain, gambling activates the reward centers that respond to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. This is because when you win, your brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good. Because of this, individuals with gambling disorder are attracted to activities that provide instant rewards like winning money or prizes. They may also be preoccupied by thoughts about the next time they can gamble or where they might find the money to fund their habit.
People with gambling disorder have a hard time controlling their spending and are often reluctant to stop gambling, even when it causes significant distress or impairment. They tend to lie to family members, therapists or others about their involvement with gambling and are likely to commit illegal acts in order to finance it. They may also rely on friends or relatives to bail them out of financial hardship caused by their gambling.
While there is no cure for pathological gambling, some treatments can help reduce the symptoms. Integrated approaches that include behavioral therapy, medication and/or family education can be helpful. However, the effectiveness of these therapies is influenced by the theoretic conceptualizations of gambling that inform them. For example, some treatments are based on erroneous assumptions about the etiology of the disorder.
If you have a loved one with a gambling addiction, it is important to seek out support and guidance. Talk with your therapist about your concerns, or consider joining a support group such as Gamblers Anonymous. Many states also offer gambling helplines and other resources. Additionally, it is important to treat any underlying mood disorders that can contribute to or be made worse by compulsive gambling. It is also a good idea to establish clear boundaries in managing family finances. This can help prevent a loved one from trying to “win back” their losses.