Problem gambling, or the excessive participation in games of luck and chance, wasn’t always considered an addiction. In the scientific community, it was regarded first as a compulsion. Traditionally, addiction is defined to mean the abuse of substances, such as the case with alcoholism, drug abuse, and smoking. Substance abuse is easier to fit as an addiction because its effects to the brain have been scientifically documented. With the introduction of drugs into the body, for example, the brain is known to experience a euphoric state, and the constant use of such lessens the body’s ability to produce dopamine and other chemicals which then creates dependence and tolerance. Such exhaustive studies are not yet present in the study of gambling addiction, with effects centering primarily on the economic and social aspects; but there is progress as more neuroscientists and psychologists start to regard it as an addiction. Now, it is seen not only as an activity where a person’s behavior is managed by a need to relieve their anxiety but more recently, as a habit motivated by an impulse and creates a certain level of ‘high’ and thrill for the player.
How Does Gambling Affect the Brain?
The brain is an interesting and intricate organ consisting of billions of cells compartmentalized into regions and functions. Unlike drug addictions, there is still much to be known about how pathological gambling affects the areas of the brain and how neurotransmitters communicate with each other; but there is new information that has allowed the general populace to understand how the brain is affected when you end up gambling too much.
The Prefrontal Cortex
The prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain that is tasked with decision-making. It plays a significant role in controlling a person’s impulses and appropriately evaluating long-term rewards vis-a-vis immediate ones. Studies have shown that gambling addicts have developed a problem in this region of the brain, disrupting proper processing which allows the person to perceive risks and rewards correctly. With compulsive betting, risks and rewards are not rightly communicated as the person leans towards short term and immediate rewards. This wrongful estimation leads them to disregard negative consequences and signals gamblers to follow their impulses.
The effect of drug substances on neurotransmitters and how much of it is produced by the brain is well-documented in drug addiction. However, little is known about how they are specifically affected when it comes to compulsive gambling. Neurotransmitters primarily involved in feelings of euphoria, pleasure, energy, impulse and excitement are dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. Problem gambling changes the production of these chemicals in the brain which affects the ability to control impulses, creates a certain high, or peddles the feeling of wanting more. For example, risky activities such as gambling can enable the production of more endorphins in the brain, leading gamblers to experience a euphoric state similar to the high the drug addicts feel. This high or thrill, enabled by the increased production of endorphins, can explain the motivation to continue gambling.
Increased tolerance is something common in cases of drug addiction. However, it also manifests in the behavior of pathological gamblers. If a drug addict’s increase in tolerance is shown in the higher intake of a substance, the gambling addict’s increased tolerance is seen in his behavior of taking bigger and riskier bets. This is due to the effects that gambling does to the brain’s reward system, particularly the ventral striatum which is hailed as the mind’s reward center. Studies have shown that problem gamblers are observed to have lower activity in this part of the brain, causing them to engage more in risky behaviors to stimulate these reward pathways; the stimulation of such will eventually allow them to feel high. The development of greater tolerance is also closely related to how neurotransmitters work since dopamine is an active chemical involved in this function.
The Road to Recovery: Ongoing Progress
Because of the progress of how the scientific community sees and understands gambling, this has had a profound effect in the way treatment is done. After redefining and finally regarding gambling as an addiction, treatment typically accorded to drug and alcohol addicts are also applied to gambling addicts. This appropriation has resulted in more successful recoveries, as counselors and psychologists discovered that cognitive-behavior therapy is an effective treatment method. Moreover, a closer scrutiny on how gambling can affect the production of certain neurotransmitters in the brain can allow psychologists and professionals to administer medication which can help increase or decrease a particular chemical in the brain, depending on the situation.
However, it is also important to note that compulsive gamblers sometimes do not even consider themselves as addicts and thus, do not seek treatment. This is one of the problems that needs to be immediately addressed, proving that re-education about what gambling is and the likelihood of getting addicted is necessary. Like any other road to recovery, it starts with admittance and acceptance of the problem. Therefore, acknowledging your addiction and being decisive about changing your ways is the oil that will gear the machine to start.
If the scientific community has already gone out to recognize gambling as an addiction, then maybe you should too. Though there is still so much to be discovered, enough knowledge has been gained to attribute excessive gambling as a behavioral addiction. A gambling addiction affects the brain the same way that substance abuse does, and the longer you hold out on getting treatment, the harder it will be to recover. The effects of gambling manifest in mental problems such as depression, anxiety, mood disorders and personality disorders. This is on top of the severe financial drain that a gambling addict and his family will have to weather through. The earlier you realize the problem, the easier the resolution; the easier the resolution, the greater the odds of recovering financially and mentally. If you feel yourself slip into an addiction and cannot control yourself, then break the habit. These days when gambling is more accessible and is relatively acceptable, responsible gambling is a must addiction and cannot control yourself, then break the habit.