Identifying and Treating Gambling Addiction

by | May 2, 2016 | Addiction, Treatment | 0 comments

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Many who suffer from gambling addiction are quite familiar with this sight. (nazarovsergey/Shutterstock)

Many who suffer from gambling addiction are quite familiar with this sight. (nazarovsergey/Shutterstock)

Amethyst Recovery specializes in drug and alcohol addiction, but we sometimes encounter patients who are addicted to other vices as well. We mentioned this a while back, when we covered the topic of sex addiction. But while we may meet the occasional person with addictive sexual tendencies, we seem to encounter patients who suffer from gambling addiction with far greater frequency. This is hardly surprising, given the prominence of alcohol in many casinos. In light of this, it occurs to us that some of our prospective patients might wish to know a little more about gambling addiction and the many ways in which it compares to substance abuse.

Note that when we say “compare,” we are not suggesting that we intend to label one form of addiction as being better or worse than the other. When it comes to addiction, there really are no winners. But the consequences of these addictions bear striking similarities to one another, and even the science of addiction is rather comparable in each case. And since gambling and drinking often go hand in hand, it is easy for those who suffer from both forms of the disease to hit rock bottom rather quickly.

Unfortunately, those who suffer from gambling addiction may find that their bottom is rather low. They will spend all day at the craps table, roulette wheel, or even the slot machines until they have just about bankrupted themselves. They are convinced that the next hand of blackjack will make up for the five they just lost, or that they’ve learned enough from their years of losses to have finally deduced March Madness into a science. If these individuals are ever to overcome their gambling addiction, they must first understand why the condition is so persistent.

The Science of Gambling Addiction

Alcoholism and gambling addiction not only accompany each other quite frequently, but also share a few similarities in terms of how they affect the brain. (g-stockstudio/Shutterstock)

Alcoholism and gambling addiction not only accompany each other quite frequently, but also share a few similarities in terms of how they affect the brain. (g-stockstudio/Shutterstock)

It’s hard for some people to accept that gambling addiction is anything like drug addiction or alcoholism. Those who understand addiction as a disease are aware of the ways in which substance abuse can rewire and damage the brain. What many do not know, however, is that gambling addiction actually functions in a very similar way. And they could easily be forgiven for failing to see this, because even the psychiatric community only began to embrace the concept toward the tail end of the twentieth century.

At first, pathological gambling was not considered to be a true addiction. It was not believed that cravings played a role in the condition, but rather that compulsive gamblers were simply seeking a means of anxiety relief. Pathological gambling was then branded as an impulse-control disorder when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) was revising the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in the 1980s. This lumped it in with disorders such as kleptomania (compulsive stealing) and trichotillomania (compulsive hair-pulling), neither of which were really considered to be addictions in the purest sense. Gambling addiction as it is now known was not added to the manual until the publication of the DSM-5 in 2013.

Gambling addiction and substance abuse both affect the brain’s reward centers in similar ways. According to an article by Scientific American:

Research to date shows that pathological gamblers and drug addicts share many of the same genetic predispositions for impulsivity and reward seeking. Just as substance addicts require increasingly strong hits to get high, compulsive gamblers pursue even riskier ventures. Likewise, both drug addicts and problem gamblers endure symptoms of withdrawal when separated from the chemical or thrill they desire. And a few studies suggest that some people are especially vulnerable to both drug addiction and compulsive gambling because their reward circuitry is inherently underactive—which may partially explain why they seek big thrills in the first place.

In other words, gambling addiction and drug addiction both result in a buildup of “tolerance,” a state in which the addict has become desensitized to the effects of the high. As people feed their addiction more and more, they must start finding ways of upping the stakes. Compulsive gamblers often take this literally, betting more money or betting when the odds are more likely to be against them.

Consequences of Gambling Addiction

Even trying to play it safe at the slots can lead to pretty heavy losses. (massimofusaro/Shutterstock)

Even trying to play it safe at the slots can lead to pretty heavy losses. (massimofusaro/Shutterstock)

The most obvious consequence faced by most compulsive gamblers is the risk of monetary disaster. As tolerance sets in and gambling addicts decide to up the stakes, they are putting themselves at greater risk of financial ruin. Sports bettors and other professional patrons of various games of chance will often set a specific bankroll, refusing to bet more than they have set aside for a particular period of time. But those who suffer from gambling addiction will either fail to take this precaution or will simply bet more than they have allotted for themselves. Eventually, they will find that they can no longer pay the bills or meet other financial obligations. This is a sign that they are on the downward slope of the Jellinek Curve, heading toward financial disaster as a result of their addiction.

It is also worth noting that gambling addiction takes time. Much like drug or alcohol addiction, the urge to compulsively gamble may cause the addict to sacrifice obligations to friends or family for the sake of feeding their urges. According to the previously mentioned article by the Scientific American, the scientific community has begun to change its views on addiction based on this very fact. While addiction was previously seen as a dependence on specific chemicals, it has now been defined as “repeatedly pursuing a rewarding experience despite serious repercussions.” According to Timothy Fong, an addiction expert at UCLA:

“The past idea was that you need to ingest a drug that changes neurochemistry in the brain to get addicted, but we now know that just about anything we do alters the brain. It makes sense that some highly rewarding behaviors, like gambling, can cause dramatic [physical] changes, too.”

In other words, you can expect that many of the common signs of drug and alcohol addiction will apply to the compulsive gambler, as gambling addiction is essentially little more than a slightly altered version of the same disease.

Gambling addiction is like any other addiction in that it can lower our inhibitions, causing us to put aside common sense and our obligations to other people in order to get our next “fix.” Fortunately, however, it is also like other addictions in that there is a solution. Those who suffer from gambling addiction can most certainly find help, as we will describe below. If you or someone you know suffers from this affliction, then you should most certainly take the following words to heart.

How Gambling Addicts Can Recover

Those who leave gambling addiction untreated are playing a major game of chance with their future. (Csehak Szabolcs/Shutterstock)

Those who leave gambling addiction untreated are playing a major game of chance with their future. (Csehak Szabolcs/Shutterstock)

As with any other addiction, gambling addiction can be treated in a number of ways. For instance, it has been found that medications such as Vivitrol (which is originally meant to be an opioid antagonist for those who suffer from opioid or heroin addiction) can disrupt the brain’s ability to create dopamine at the levels that normally result in gambling addiction. Other medications will supposedly work for gambling addiction as well, but this is the only addiction-related medication that we have seen specifically mentioned in this particular context.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is also known to be an effective form of treatment for gambling addiction. Much as drug addicts and alcoholics, the gambling addict must learn to face the fact that their logic has not often been sound. As noted earlier, many compulsive gamblers are absolutely convinced that a run of losses may indicate that they are finally about to hit their payday. If they do not learn to see the folly in such reasoning, many will continue to fund their habits despite never making a profit. If they lose with 19 while playing blackjack and the house wins with 20, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the next game will go better. This is the sort of faulty reasoning that those who suffer from gambling addiction must learn to confront, just as the alcoholic must learn that they have never been successful at controlling their disease.

Most compulsive gamblers unfortunately do not seek treatment, and many relapse even after they have confronted the consequences of their addictions. The problem has grown so out of hand that even many casinos, who stand to benefit from gambling addiction, are beginning to look for trends in their patrons’ behaviors so that they can try to avoid offering their services to those who suffer. This is a great step in the right direction, but we must still worry about those who need treatment and may not have sought it yet.

Those who suffer from gambling addiction should most certainly seek treatment before the consequences of their compulsions become any worse. Those who find that their compulsive gambling is often accompanied (or made worse) by alcoholism or drug addiction should also look into our programs. Addictions are best treated together, not separately. If you are looking for a treatment center that understands the value of cognitive behavioral therapy and personalized care, do not hesitate to contact Amethyst today.

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