What is Gambling?

Gambling involves risking something of value (such as money or property) on an event that is uncertain in terms of its outcome, such as a football game, a lottery drawing, or the results of a scratchcard. It includes games of pure chance where skill is not involved, such as poker or blackjack, and also those in which a person can use knowledge to improve their chances of winning, such as horse racing or sports betting.

Gambling is a behavioral addiction characterized by recurrent and maladaptive patterns of gambling behaviors, which cause significant distress or impairment in social, work, or family relationships. Pathological gambling is sometimes called compulsive gambling or problem gambling. While DSM-5 no longer lists it as a distinct disorder, a small percentage of Americans meet diagnostic criteria for PG, and many begin to develop their problem during adolescence or young adulthood. Among those who report having a gambling problem, males seem to develop PG more rapidly and are more likely to engage in strategic or face-to-face forms of gambling, such as blackjack or poker.

The urge to gamble is controlled by the reward center in the brain, which is activated when a person wins or loses. Humans are genetically predisposed to seek rewards, and this drive is often reinforced by experiences that produce good feelings, such as spending time with loved ones, eating a satisfying meal, or playing a game of chance. When humans are exposed to a rewarding experience, their brains release dopamine, which causes them to want more of that feeling. People who suffer from gambling disorders have an over-active reward system, and the desire to gamble is reinforced by repeated experiences of pleasure or loss.

There are no FDA-approved medications for the treatment of a gambling disorder. However, counseling can be useful for those who have a strong desire to gamble. Counseling can help individuals understand the roots of their problem and consider alternatives. The therapist can also help identify coexisting mental health conditions, which may be contributing to the impulsivity and urge to gamble.

Those who are battling a gambling disorder should take steps to control their finances, such as by having someone else in charge of their money, closing online betting accounts, and keeping only a small amount of cash on hand. In addition, a support network of friends and family members can be helpful in maintaining recovery. It is also important to join a peer support group, such as Gamblers Anonymous, which follows the 12-step model of Alcoholics Anonymous.

There are no drugs approved by the FDA to treat a gambling disorder, but some doctors prescribe antidepressants or other psychiatric medications that can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, which can sometimes be present along with a gambling disorder. Those who are seriously afflicted with gambling disorder should seek inpatient or residential treatment programs. These programs provide round-the-clock support and are aimed at helping people break the cycle of gambling, losing, and recovering.