Gambling and the Brain

Gambling and the Brain


Whether buying a lotto ticket, placing a bet on the football or playing bingo, gambling is all about risking something of value on an event that is determined at least in part by chance. While many people may think of slot machines and casinos when they hear the word “gambling,” many other activities also fall under this umbrella, including playing cards, sports betting and office pools.

The term “disordered gambling” is used to describe a range of behaviors from those that place individuals at risk for developing more serious problems (subclinical) to those that meet Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) criteria for pathological gambling (PG). A person who has PG often develops the problem in adolescence or young adulthood. Men tend to have PG at a higher rate than women, and they are more likely to report difficulties with strategic or face-to-face forms of gambling (e.g., blackjack or poker).

Although there are no FDA-approved medications for treating gambling disorders, psychotherapy is an effective treatment. Psychotherapy can help a person understand the factors that trigger gambling, and help them identify alternatives to harmful behavior. Psychotherapy can also provide a framework for addressing family, financial and career issues that result from problematic gambling.

In addition, many gambling addictions are accompanied by depression or anxiety and can be addressed with the use of medication as well as therapy. There are also a number of self-help groups, such as Gamblers Anonymous, which offers peer support and a 12-step program for recovery based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Studies on gambling and the brain have shown that the release of dopamine in the brain during gambling is triggered by uncertainty, much like the feelings induced by taking drugs of abuse. Repeated exposure to gambling and the feeling of uncertainty can change reward pathways in the brain, causing them to become hypersensitive to uncertainty and resulting in compulsive behavior.

One of the most difficult parts of overcoming a gambling disorder is admitting that you have a problem. However, once a person makes this step, they can begin the journey to recovery. It is important to get professional help, as a gambling addiction can cause severe financial problems and strain relationships.

It is important to establish a budget for how much money you will spend on gambling and to stick to it. It is also helpful to schedule time for gambling in your calendar and to set an alarm when you start your session so that you can stop when the time is up. Also, it is useful to allocate a certain amount of your disposable income to gambling and not to gamble more than this amount, even when you are winning. This way, you will always know when your gambling time is up and can stop before you have blown all of your hard-earned money. This will keep you from becoming financially depressed when you lose a bet. This will also prevent you from overestimating your skill level and making bad decisions that can lead to losses.