It's Just Entertainment!
For many, gambling is just entertainment. Casinos may include lavish hotels, celebrity entertainment, and boundless gourmet meals as well as gambling. People may get together with friends for a social evening of poker and snacks or enjoy placing a wager on their favorite ball team while watching Sunday night football together. Vegas Night may be the theme of a charity event involving people having fun playing blackjack or the roulette table while supporting a favorite cause. And who can resist the excitement of calling out “Bingo!” and winning the “pot” of cash?
While entertaining for most, 2 to 4 percent of the population, approximately 2 million people, struggle with the devastating disorder of gambling addiction. Gambling addiction typically begins in the adolescent years for males, and later years for females. However, some studies have suggested that when an individual begins gambling later in life, the progression from social gambling to gambling addiction occurs faster.
More research has been conducted on gambling addiction than any other behavioral addiction, but there is still much to learn. What seems apparent so far is that a genetic link and a gender link likely exist in gambling addiction. In other words, an individual is more likely to develop a gambling addiction if he is male and has a first-degree relative who also has a gambling addiction.
Many potentially addictive substances and behaviors are more likely to develop into full-blown addictions when use begins in the teen years. Gambling is no exception. In fact, teenagers are three times more likely to become addicted to gambling than adults. This is quite alarming and indicates a great need for early intervention and education regarding gambling.
The Biology of Gambling
It's no surprise to learn that gambling addiction, like other addictions, receives biological reinforcement through the dopamine pleasure pathway. Research is showing that gambling addiction activates the same parts of the brain that substances such as cocaine do. It has also been suggested that pathological gamblers have lower levels of norepinephrine than normal gamblers.
Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that imprints information into long-term memory. It is released when a person is experiencing stress or arousal. This is reinforced when someone is aroused by a gambling win and that memory is imprinted on the brain.
Is pathological gambling an impulse-control disorder or an addiction?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) presents diagnostic criteria compiled by the American Psychiatric Association for mental health disorders. In the DSM-IV, pathological gambling is described as an impulse-control disorder. However, more up-to-date research is suggesting pathological gambling is more closely related to substance use disorders because of the biological and genetic connections between the two disorders.
Serotonin is yet another neurotransmitter that is implicated in the problem of pathological gambling. Serotonin affects one's moods and behaviors, and it has been well documented that depression often co-occurs with gambling addiction. Other abnormalities have also been discovered in the brains of pathological gamblers.
Impairments in the prefrontal cortex of the brain noted in pathological gamblers affect their ability to make sound decisions, to focus and attend, and to control impulses. One can readily understand how these abnormalities in the brain of an addicted gambler can lead to devastating consequences.
The complexities of the brain often lead to multiple mental health problems and addictions, as has been discussed in previous chapters. A person addicted to gambling is also more likely to have other addictions, particularly alcohol, and mental health problems such as mood disorders, adjustment disorders, personality disorders, and anxiety disorders.
Alcohol addiction is particularly problematic in combination with gambling addiction, as it leads to further disinhibited behavior and poor decision-making. Keep this in mind when you note that many casinos offer gamblers free alcoholic beverages while they are gambling.
Desperation motivates many gambling addicts to commit illegal acts to fund their gambling behavior. One study found that two out of three gambling addicts turned to crime to pay gambling-related debts. Not only does this lead to painful consequences for the gambling addict and her family, it puts an additional burden on our country's legal system.
The Phases of Gambling Addiction
Gambling addiction is a progressive disorder. Phases of a gambling addiction are predictable and follow a downward spiral. The winning phase occurs with a big win or a series of smaller wins. The dopamine pleasure pathway is activated and the gambler is unreasonably certain that the winning streak will go on indefinitely. The excitement he feels is heightened with the increasing amounts of his bets.
Inevitably, a losing phase follows. The gambler may start gambling alone to hide the losses. He may go into debt and borrow money, and he may begin to experience a downward plunge emotionally with irritability, depression, and restlessness. Lying about gambling activities often begins in this phase and the gambler will feel compelled to gamble more in order to recoup his losses.
Environmental influences also affect gambling addiction. For example, a person who lives close to a gambling facility is more likely than others to develop a gambling addiction. Someone whose friends regularly gamble will be more readily drawn into problem gambling behavior.
The desperation phase finds the gambler spending more time and attention to his gambling behavior. It is not uncommon for the gambling addict to now begin financing his gambling with illegal activities. Emotional and psychological problems escalate and more serious consequences ensue such as arrests, divorce, bankruptcy, and so forth.
Finally, the addicted gambler may enter the hopelessness phase. At this point, he sees no way out of his situation. Thoughts of suicide are common. In fact, in this phase of the addiction, approximately 20 percent of gambling addicts will attempt suicide.