Gambling involves risking something of value (typically money) on an event that is determined at least in part by chance. The gambler hopes that he or she will win and gain something of value. This could include winning a lottery ticket, buying bingo or scratch tickets, playing slot machines, playing card games, betting on sports events, buying horses, or placing a bet on a game of dice.
Gamblers are not always aware that their gambling behavior is problematic. They may not realize that their gambling is causing problems for their family, friends, or employers. They may be reluctant to admit their gambling is a problem and seek help.
The underlying cause of gambling disorders is a biological change in the brain, triggering a craving for intense pleasure. This happens when a person experiences a large amount of dopamine, the chemical that drives reward-seeking behaviors. People who experience this craving often need to engage in more and more unhealthy activities to feel the same high. As a result, their lives become increasingly out of balance and they are at greater risk for other mental health problems, such as depression and substance use disorder.
Over time, gambling can also desensitize the brain to its pleasurable effects. As a result, people may need to gamble more and more in order to feel the same high that they did in the past. This can have serious financial, personal and family consequences.
Research shows that gambling addiction is a real condition and affects many individuals, including families. It is a complex issue and treatment options are varied. For some, psychotherapy is helpful; for others, medication can be useful. For those with severe addictions, residential or inpatient care is available.
Some psychiatric specialists now see gambling as a kind of impulse control disorder, similar to kleptomania or pyromania. This decision, which moved pathological gambling into the addictions chapter of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, reflects new understandings about the biology of addiction.
There is not a single medication that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat gambling disorder, but several types of psychotherapy have been shown to be effective. These techniques help people identify and change unhealthy emotions, thoughts and behaviors and are usually conducted with a trained mental health professional, such as a psychologist or social worker.
Other treatment methods for gambling disorders include education about the risks and benefits of gambling, family therapy, marital and career counseling, and credit counseling. Support groups, such as Gamblers Anonymous, are also available to help struggling people find a way to cope.
For families and loved ones of those with gambling disorders, it is important to set limits on how much time and money a person will spend gambling, and to keep credit cards, bank accounts, and online gambling sites closed. It is also a good idea to stay involved in the treatment process and not give up on the gambler, as recovery is a long journey.