Gambling involves betting something of value on a random event, where instances of strategy are discounted. It can take many forms, including playing games such as blackjack or poker, betting with friends, and buying lottery tickets. While gambling can be fun and social, it also comes with some risks. If it becomes a problem, it can have serious implications for individuals, their families and society.
People gamble for many reasons, from the adrenaline rush to win money to escape worries or stress. Some people find that they can control their gambling behaviour, but others may get out of hand and spend more than they can afford to lose. They might borrow money or use credit cards to fund their betting, and can even become reliant on drugs or alcohol to help them cope with their addiction. In some cases, the urge to gamble can lead to thoughts of suicide, so it’s important to seek help if this happens.
Research has shown that the brain responds to the release of dopamine from gambling in a similar way to drug abuse. This is because of how the reward system is activated in the brain, and because of genetic or psychological predispositions to impulsiveness and thrill-seeking behaviour. People are more sensitive to losses than gains of the same value, so it’s easy for people to fall into a cycle of spending more money to try and make up for previous losses.
Another issue is that people often overestimate the chances of winning, particularly if they’ve experienced a string of wins. This is called ‘recency bias’, and it means that the brain recalls the last time something happened and assumes that it will happen again. This is why, if you flip a coin and it comes up tails seven times in a row, the brain tries to rationalise the unlikeliness of getting heads on the next spin by saying it will balance out.
While there are no FDA-approved medications to treat gambling disorders, counselling can help. It can help a person understand their urge to gamble and think about how it affects them and their family. It can also encourage them to consider options and solve problems. In addition, support groups, such as Gamblers Anonymous, can offer peer support and encouragement to stop gambling. There are also charities that provide debt advice, such as StepChange, and some studies have found that physical activity can reduce the urge to gamble. If you need help, contact StepChange for free and confidential debt advice or visit a local Gamblers Anonymous meeting.