How Gambling Affects the Brain

Gambling is an activity where people risk something of value (money, property or possessions) in exchange for a chance to win a prize. It involves a mixture of skill and luck and can be done in a variety of ways, including playing card games, placing bets on sporting events or buying scratchcards. Gambling is an addictive behavior, and it can have serious consequences for those who struggle with it. These consequences can include harm to health and relationships, difficulties at work or school and accumulating debt. In some cases, gambling can even lead to homelessness and suicide.

Like many addictive behaviors, gambling affects the brain and causes a change in the reward pathway. The brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel excited, when we gamble. This dopamine response can be triggered by any type of gambling, from winning or losing. However, it is most likely to occur when you are gambling on an event with a high probability of success, such as winning a lottery or betting on sports. This type of gambling is called ‘skilled’ gambling and is more likely to result in a positive outcome.

Despite being a legal and widespread activity, gambling can have devastating effects on those who struggle with it. It can cause depression, poor mental and physical health, and can also have a negative impact on family and workplace relationships. It is important for doctors to screen for and treat pathological gambling in their patients.

While it’s difficult to identify problem gambling, there are some key indicators to look out for. These include an early big win, the size of a loss, boredom susceptibility, impulsivity and the use of escape coping. In addition, some individuals are more at risk of developing a gambling addiction than others because they have a genetic predisposition to it.

A person struggling with gambling can get help through a range of services, including peer support groups such as Gamblers Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, therapy, family therapy and individual counselling. These can address the specific issues caused by a gambling addiction and lay the foundation for recovery. In addition, a person can get rid of credit cards, put someone else in charge of their money, close online gambling accounts and keep only a small amount of cash on them.

A person who is trying to overcome a gambling addiction can also try postponing the urge to gamble by distracting themselves, or taking part in a hobby such as art or sport, or going for a walk or a coffee with friends. It is also worth reaching out to family and friends who can offer support and encouragement. For those who cannot stop gambling on their own, there are inpatient and residential treatment programs, which can be effective in breaking the cycle of addiction. In some cases, these programs may require the assistance of a sponsor. This can be a former gambler who has successfully overcome their addiction and can provide guidance and support.