How the Brain Gets Addicted to Gambling 

Like most addictions, gambling has many serious consequences, not only on a person’s life and relationships, but also on the brain chemistry. There are multiple factors that contribute to how the brain gets addicted to gambling, and what makes some of us more susceptible to this particular addiction than others. When a person gambles, for example, their brain releases dopamine – the “feel good” chemical that makes us all feel happy and excited. It is important to note that chemical doesn’t only release when they win; it is also just as present with a loss, as well, and so it can be extremely easy to become addicted to the rush of dopamine that comes with gambling, with many unable to recognise the appropriate time to stop. Aside from the effects of gambling on the brain, there are other contributing factors that also play into this particular addiction, further compounding the problem. These factors include, but are not limited to:
  • Ease of access to gambling resources
  • Biological factors/genetics
  • Mental health issues
  • Past or present traumatic events
  • Recent emotional events, such as divorce, loss of a loved one or a job
  • Financial problems
  • Current or past substances addictions
  • Influences from family and friends
The more potential risks someone has, the higher their chances of developing a serious gambling addiction. In fact, this behavioural addiction can begin extremely easily for some people, especially those who experience a ‘big win’ early on in their experience, giving them false expectations and hope, leaving them more inclined to try again and paving their path to becoming addicted. After a few losses, those people begin chasing the elusive ‘high’ effect that gambling can give through dopamine release, all in hopes they will eventually gain another win, and reclaim the money that has been lost. More often than not, however, this behaviour leads to losing more money and fuels the downward spiral of gambling addiction. To offer more clarity around this issue, the specialists at Hills & Ranges Private offer some further insight on gambling addiction and the brain, as well as some key tips to assist in recovery.

The Effects of Gambling Addiction on the Brain

Given the lack of a physical substance entering the body, many don’t perceive a gambling addiction as being as serious as those relating to drugs or alcohol. In fact, once the brain is addicted to gambling, it can go through withdrawal, much like an alcohol or drug addiction, as the thrills from gambling trigger the brain’s reward system, releasing up to 10 times the natural amount of dopamine than would be released from an ‘ordinary’ rewarding experience (i.e. winning a board game amongst friends). It can be easy to get hooked on the rush of dopamine brought on by gambling and its effects on the brain, especially for a person who may not normally produce a lot of that chemical on their own, either through genetic issues, or a lack of fulfilment in their life. Once addicted, the brain naturally begins to build up a tolerance to the chemicals giving us this thrill, and the amount of dopamine becomes less exciting. The addicted gambler soon wants to seek more of that feeling, and the same effects of the thrill, and so they begin the chase of that high mentioned above. This is typically when someone’s life is truly impacted by their addiction. Someone with a true addiction will start going to great lengths to feed the dopamine-hungry brain, and there are many signs to look out for if someone is suspected to be addicted to gambling:
  • Constantly thinking about or talking about gambling
  • Feeling restless or irritable when they’re unable to gamble
  • Lying to friends and family to try and hide the loss of money
  • Jeopardizing relationships and friendships
  • Putting their job or home at risk to feed the addiction
  • Turning to criminal acts such as theft or fraud to acquire money to gamble
  • Unable to stop or cut back on gambling
Given the above, it is understandable that if someone doesn’t recognise what is triggering them to gamble, they will struggle to walk away after losing, with desperation only leaving them feeling worse. Eventually, the effects of the addiction set in, the brain’s reward system is weakened, and the addicted gambler is left trying to re-experience the thrill, taking more extreme risks, bidding higher amounts, and, more often than not, resulting in even more loss. Studies have shown that a gambling addict and a drug-addicted individual have similar brain activity when shown pictures and videos of their addiction. They both demonstrated similar effects on blood flow to certain areas of the brain and the ventral striatum, which is also more commonly referred to as the brain’s reward centre. It’s believed by some that those who are more susceptible to addiction have an underactive reward system in the brain, causing them to seek out different ways to receive that release of dopamine.

Is It Possible to Recover from the Effects of Gambling on the Brain?

Given what we have discussed on how the brain gets addicted to gambling, and the demands for higher levels of dopamine as the reward system is essentially rewired, it is still possible to reverse the effects of the addiction. It takes time, but slowly the brain will rewire itself back to a natural state. Those who suffer from gambling addiction, however, often struggle to overcome it without the assistance of professionals. This can take the form of one-on-one care, or removing temptation completely by checking into a gambling rehab centre, where you can be closely monitored and supported. Entering into an addiction rehab program is a powerful way to detox fully and allow yourself to begin the recovery process with the help of trained specialists amid tailored counselling, and recreational activities to keep your mind and body busy. If you or a loved one in Sydney needs help battling an addiction, Hills & Ranges Private rehab facility can offer a wonderful program run by highly trained professionals. Call 1800 422 711, or fill out the online contact form and our friendly staff will provide you with the information you require to get started.

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