Gambling involves wagering something of value (money, property, or other assets) on an event with the intent to win some sort of prize. It involves risk, chance, and choice, though some forms of gambling can be considered skill-based as well. The act of gambling activates parts of the brain that trigger reward and pleasure. While most people who gamble do so without problems, some develop a more severe addiction. People with low incomes are more likely to develop a problem, and young people, especially boys and men, are also at higher risk. As the availability and accessibility of gambling has increased, more and more people are developing a problem. The psychiatric community once categorized pathological gambling as a compulsion, a fuzzy label that included behaviors like kleptomania and trichotillomania (hair pulling), but in the latest edition of its diagnostic manual, the American Psychiatric Association moved gambling disorder into the chapter on behavioral addictions, reflecting a growing body of research that links it to substance-related disorders in clinical expression, brain origin, comorbidity, and treatment response.
Some experts believe that some people are genetically predisposed to gambling addiction. Other researchers point to environmental factors that increase a person’s vulnerability, including poor schooling, family problems, and the existence of other mental health conditions. In addition, gambling is often associated with high-risk activities, such as drug use and alcohol abuse, which can make it difficult to stop.
The most important factor in treating gambling disorder is finding ways to replace the gratifying sensations that come with gambling with healthy alternatives. This can be accomplished through psychotherapy, a type of counseling that is conducted with a licensed psychologist or clinical social worker. The therapist helps a person identify unhealthy thoughts and behaviors, and provides strategies for changing them. In addition, a therapist may suggest treatments that can help manage symptoms of coexisting conditions such as depression or anxiety, which can contribute to problematic gambling.
Those with an addictive disorder are encouraged to find support groups that can offer encouragement and advice. There are also residential and inpatient treatment programs that are geared to those with severe problems, and which provide round-the-clock support and structured therapy.
If you are struggling with a gambling addiction, talk to your doctor. There are also many support groups for people with gambling problems, including Gamblers Anonymous and state-sponsored helplines. It is also helpful to strengthen your support network, and find other ways to fill your time – such as joining a book club, sports team, or education class, or volunteering for a cause you care about. If you have a loved one with an addiction, consider joining a support group for families of people with gambling disorders.