How Does Gambling Affect the Brain?
In this guide, we will shed light on those aspects of gambling that affect the behaviour and can potentially lead to addiction. We will talk about those signs that ring the alarm and how to seek advice from competent gambling rehabilitation bodies.
Disclaimer: The following article is not a scientific study. However, all information has been collected from authoritative scientific sources and treated with utmost care to be comprehended by the average reader. For more information and advice on curing gambling addiction, we suggest you check ConnexOntario support services.
The personality of the average gambler is not so different from that of someone struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. Individuals whose gambling affects a greater portion of their lives are considered problem gamblers; in other words, they have a gambling disorder, which usually involves higher risk with fewer rewards. Some notable behaviours include poor decision-making, low impulse control, and symptoms such as depression.
Why Do People Start Gambling?
Most individuals start showing an impulse towards gambling as a result of the thrill associated with it, which creates a dopamine rush in the brain. In fact, it matters little whether you win or lose, as evidence indicates that this rush occurs either way. A player can begin to create their own reward pathways in their brain, which drives their impulsivity to continue gambling and creates cravings when those impulses are ignored. Usually, but not exclusively, even something as simple as a slot machine can create factors leading to higher odds of developing an addiction.
Do Gamblers Have Low Self-esteem?
Low self-esteem is not exclusively associated with gambling addicts. However, scientists associate gambling with increased chances of developing issues related to low self-esteem, stress, anxiety, and depression. Evidence shows that gambling plays a negative role in a person’s mental health, with a high chance of showing signs of low self-esteem. Though habits are often formed with gambling, whether the player wins or loses, low self-esteem is more likely to occur when more frequent and significant losses occur.
The DSM-5 explains that gambling creates the same type of serotonin and dopamine release in the prefrontal cortex, striatum, and amygdala as those with addictions to drugs or alcohol. Findings show that the release of these neurotransmitter chemicals lights up activity levels in brain regions, much like the areas of the brains of drug addicts or alcoholics. In addition, the combined use of alcohol or drugs while gambling often results in an environment in which both addictions are exacerbated. Of course, higher concentrations of these chemicals are released in the case of a win. However, in the case of a loss, the same chemicals are released in a lesser quantity, leading the gambler to want more. This can eventually lead to gambling addiction.
What Happens to Your Body When You Gamble?
Studies have shown that the human brain can create a dependency on gambling in the same way as it would with drug addiction. Playing a game or placing a bet, for example, releases the same chemicals and shows the same brain activity as an alcoholic buying a 6-pack. This can often be exhibited as excitement, a rush, or a sense of euphoria. Regular brain function, in this case, can often become impaired, leading to beliefs of grandeur or other outcomes.
What Mental Illnesses Can Gambling Cause?
The American Psychiatric Association has published research showing that humans exhibiting problem-gambling behaviour exhibit predispositions to emotional problems such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. The obsessive frequency with which some gamble is also in line with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
More than one study has shown that when an individual exhibits signs of making poor decisions, often asks friends for money, spends many hours at casinos, accepts reckless bets, and neglects friends, family, and work
are among the ways a person can spot a problem gambler. Furthermore, problem gamblers may also state that they possess some type of skill set or other reasons for which they are convinced they will win a bet. Unlike drugs or alcohol, however, one’s tolerance to gambling is much more difficult to observe, as there are fewer physical cues.
What Is the Root Cause of Gambling Addiction?
If addiction of any kind runs in a person’s family and intimate social environment, they may have a higher chance of developing an addiction of some form of their own. Researchers point to the main cause of gambling addiction being mental illness, as most people can play slot machines, the jackpot, or other casino games without developing any form of problem. A series of factors from the gambler’s environment affect their odds of developing a problem with substance or gambling. However, those with friends or family members with gambling problems also present a higher risk of developing their issues.
How Can You Tell If Someone Has a Gambling Problem?
Addictions can be recognized in a variety of ways. Nevertheless, because gambling does not affect the mind or body in the same way that alcohol or drugs would, gambling problems come with some difficulty in recognizing. Individuals with a gambling addiction tend to participate in activities with higher amounts of risk and display an attraction to risk. Other indications include the impulse to rush through basic tasks to make more time to pursue their addiction. Addicts may also neglect their physical health and well-being, diet, and mental health in other to satiate their cravings. Signs may also include poor job performance, relationship strains, decreased social presence, lethargy, and others.
How Do You Stop the Urge to Gamble?
Like alcohol and drug addiction, those with gambling disorders can seek support and help from substance addiction counselling centers in their region. Speaking with a counsellor can create a certain advantage for addiction patients. There is always an option for everyone, and a major part of resisting the urge to gamble is to have strong community support, including friends, family, loved ones, or co-workers.
Much like the brain changes that occur with alcohol or narcotics addictions, the worst social and psychological effects and consequences can be prevented and avoided when an addict has strong support from their community and has an implemented strategy with a psychologist. There are a number of resources available to anyone suffering from gambling addiction, yet it remains a fact that the addict must want to seek help themselves and not be forced into it.
Below, you can find a list of verified sources from responsible gambling foundations and health centres in Ontario and Canada.
- Health Impacts of Gambling
- Compulsive gambling – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic
- Mental Health Effects of Gambling
- The Science Behind Gambling
- How Gambling Affects Your Brain | Gateway Foundation
- Where can I get help with problem gambling?
- Problem Gambling | CAMH
- Gambling Addiction – Canada Safety Council
- Problem Gambling | CAMH
- Who gambles and who experiences gambling problems in Canada
A spouse or partner of someone with a gambling habit may demonstrate feelings of distance, neglect, stress, and differences in mood and behaviour. Friendships, families, workplace relationships, and romantic relationships are all affected by any addiction and are also often the strongest sources of support in an addict’s community. The more support an addict has from their community, the easier the experience of quitting will become. Having a positive role model increases those chances significantly.
The neuroscience behind addiction of any type is extremely complex. Still, gambling, like any other addiction, produces a brain reward system in which the chemical increase caused by both wins and losses, in effect, forms withdrawal symptoms when not satisfied. However, this also does not mean that a gambling addict who ends many nights as a winner will simply pack up their bags and quit. In fact, it will likely reinforce their desire to continue.
Many activities and strategies can replace the satisfaction of gambling; healthy things such as exercise, meditation, new hobbies, spending time in nature, or just spending time out of the house have all shown signs of improving an addict’s chances of recovery. A plethora of models in psychology supports the replacement of negative addictions with more positive ones.
Understanding your own pleasure response systems will most likely result in a higher probability of your ability to control your gambling impulses. Whether a feeling is positive or negative, it is important to be aware of your brain’s responses to inputs that cause a rush of dopamine or serotonin.
Dominic is an experienced gambling industry professional of well over a decade across a variety of operational and product roles. He has launched retail sportsbooks and online wagering sites for gaming giants across Africa and Southeast Asia. Much of his content focuses on the North American iGaming scene, specifically the newly licensed Ontarian market, including casino & sportsbook reviews and local gambling laws.