How Gambling Becomes a Problem


Gambling is an activity in which you risk something of value, such as money, goods or services, for a chance to win something else of value. It may take place in casinos, racetracks or online. It can be an enjoyable pastime, but when it becomes a problem, it harms your physical and mental health, relationships, job or school performance, gets you into legal trouble and can even cause homelessness.

Many factors can contribute to gambling addiction, including an early big win, the size of wins, a predisposition for sensation-seeking behaviours and impulsivity, a poor understanding of probability (the odds of winning vs. the chances of losing), the use of escape coping strategies, stressful life experiences and depression. You might also be genetically predisposed to an underactive brain reward system and have a poor ability to weigh risks and rewards.

Whenever you win a gamble, the brain releases dopamine as a reward for a success that meets certain criteria, such as skill, effort or luck. This is why it’s important to set limits for yourself when gambling. However, when gambling becomes a problem, it hijacks the brain’s learning mechanism through random rewards.

When you lose a bet, the brain releases the same dopamine response as when you win a gamble. This creates a feedback loop that encourages you to continue gambling, despite the negative consequences. This is why it’s important to develop a support network and limit your time spent in casinos and other gambling-related activities.

Over half of the population in the UK engages in some form of gambling. But when you’re addicted, it can damage your physical and mental health, affect your relationships, interfere with work or study, lead to debt, cause bankruptcy and even suicide. It can even have an impact on the health of your family, friends and colleagues.

There are a range of treatment options available, from self-help support groups to cognitive behavioural therapy. You can also get help from a professional counselor or psychiatrist who is trained in treating addictions. Counseling can provide education about the causes of addiction, teach you coping skills and help you address problems that contributed to your problem gambling behaviour.

If you’re struggling with gambling problems, it’s important to seek help as soon as possible. Talk to your doctor, a therapist or a member of a self-help group like GamCare or Gamblers Anonymous. You can also try to strengthen your support network, and seek help for any underlying mood disorders that may be contributing to the problem. These include depression, anxiety and stress – which can both trigger or be made worse by gambling. You could also consider getting marriage, career or credit counseling to help you reshape your life in ways that will avoid compulsive gambling behaviour. Some of these services can be accessed free of charge. Others require a small fee.