In a world where people spend more time at the office than on their own children, it comes as no surprise that gambling has become one of our favourite pastimes. In the United States alone, over $1 billion is spent every year by gamblers on slot machines and other forms of electronic gaming.
“It’s just like a drug,” explains Mark Rodeen, a neuroscientist who studies addiction from a clinical perspective. “The brain is hardwired to want to gamble.”
That desire for excitement and risk seems to be universal among humans everywhere in the world. But why do we enjoy gambling so much when there are so many other safer ways to get that same rush? The simple answer is that it’s addictive.
Gambling is considered an impulse control disorder because it involves a loss of willpower. It’s not about winning or losing money — it’s about the thrill of taking risks and then feeling the loss of control when you lose.
This is especially true with slot machines. Slot machines offer players a chance to win large amounts of cash quickly. A single spin can give them the opportunity to win thousands of dollars in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, that sense of control only lasts until they run out of money and have to wait for someone else to come along and pay them back.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because these kinds of machines were once common in bars across America. They’re still around today but they’ve been upgraded to include more complex technologies that make them even more addicting. In fact, one study found that slot machines, including video slots and online casino games, may be responsible for almost half of all problem gambling cases in the U.S.
While the majority of people won’t ever develop any kind of serious gambling addiction, there are some warning signs that you could be headed down that path. If you notice a significant change in your behavior and your finances, don’t hesitate to seek help from a professional.
Here are eight things you should know if you think you might have a gambling problem.
What Is Problem Gambling?
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For most people, gambling is harmless fun. You probably know someone in your family or circle of friends who enjoys playing cards, poker, blackjack or roulette or maybe even slots. When done with moderation, it’s not a big deal. But for some, gambling becomes an obsession.
Problem gambling differs from recreational gambling in several important ways. For starters, problem gambling usually occurs when an individual’s gambling takes a toll on his or her job performance, relationships, financial security or physical health.
The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that up to 25 percent of people in the U.S. suffer from a gambling problem. That’s approximately 1 in 4 adults.
According to NCPGB, gambling problems fall into two categories:
Pathological gambler: Someone who is actively seeking to increase their chances of winning at any cost.
At-risk gambler: Someone whose gambling begins to negatively affect their life.
These people tend to exhibit the following behaviors:
Loss of interest in hobbies and activities that they used to love
An inability to stop gambling despite negative consequences of their decisions
Feeling depressed, anxious and hopeless
Withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, restlessness, insomnia and nightmares
A loss of self-esteem
Continued involvement in gambling even after being informed of its harmful effects
There is also a category called problem gamblers without pathological traits. These individuals aren’t necessarily addicted to gambling per se, but instead have developed a dependence on gambling due to external factors (such as their environment or social pressures) rather than internal ones (such as genetics).
In addition to the problem behaviors mentioned above, people suffering from a gambling problem will often try to hide their problem from others. They’ll often lie about how much they’ve lost or pretend that their losses never occurred.
But regardless of what they say, these people are likely to face a host of other issues. Some of those issues include:
Depression and anxiety
As you can see, gambling poses a lot of real dangers to both the person who suffers from the disease as well as the people around him or her. That’s why it’s so important to seek treatment if you suspect that you may have a problem.
One of the best ways to tell if you’re a problem gambler is to take the test below. If the results are positive, you should speak with a therapist to learn more about the disease and receive the proper treatment.
How Does Gambling Affect Your Brain?
The human brain is wired differently depending on whether we’re doing something pleasurable or something that is dangerous. This is why we feel different emotions while driving a car compared to when we’re riding roller coasters or participating in extreme sports.
Researchers have discovered that the brains of problem gamblers react differently than the brains of non-problem gamblers when they’re exposed to certain stimuli. Specifically, researchers looked at the activity of the ventral striatum, which plays a key role in the reward system that controls our decision-making process.
When they looked at the brains of problem gamblers versus non-problem gamblers, they found that the ventral striatum was significantly less active during certain situations. In particular, the ventral striatum became less active when participants saw slot machine symbols that predicted wins. On the other hand, the ventral striatum became more active when participants viewed slot machine symbols that predicted losses. This suggests that the ventral striatum is involved in making risky decisions and that the brains of problem gamblers may be unable to override those impulses when it comes to gambling.
Another area of research looks at how the brains of problem gamblers differ from the brains of non-problem gamblers. One of the areas studied is the amygdala. This section of the brain is associated with emotion and memory processing.
When researchers examined the brains of problem gamblers, they noticed increased activity in the right hemisphere of the amygdala. This region of the brain is known to play a major role in the anticipation of emotional responses and memories of past experiences. These findings suggest that the brains of problem gamblers may have trouble distinguishing between good and bad feelings.
Are There Any Other Ways to Get High?
Unfortunately, there are no magic pills to cure problem gambling. Most treatments for this condition focus on teaching patients new strategies for managing their impulses and changing their social environments. Here are some other things you might consider trying before turning to traditional drugs.
Get Away From the Casino
You need to cut yourself off from the source of temptation. That means getting away from the casinos. The longer you stay in the same place, the easier it is for your brain to start rewarding itself for spending money.
If you absolutely must go to a casino, find a friend or spouse who is willing to accompany you and stick together. When you return home, lock the door behind you and remove all your credit cards.
Stay Focused on the Goal
If you have a problem with gambling, it’s easy to get distracted by what other exciting things you can do. Instead, choose one thing to work towards. For example, you could set a goal to save money for a vacation next month.
Focus on that goal and avoid anything that distracts you from it. Make sure that you stick to the plan and avoid the urge to check out other options.
Find New Opportunities
If you’re a problem gambler who isn’t able to break free from the destructive cycle, you may need to look for other ways to cope with the situation. Instead of heading straight for the nearest casino, look for new opportunities to experience pleasure in a healthy way. Maybe you can join a running club or find a new hobby.
Once you’ve started looking for alternative sources of enjoyment, you’ll likely find that the old habits start to fade away. Once you start moving in the direction of healthier living, you’ll find that your body and mind are better equipped to handle the stress of gambling.