Why does a problem gambler continue to gamble? Why would a person choose to repeat doing something that repeatedly demonstrates that doing it is a bad idea?

As with all addictions, there are no easy answers to these questions. There is however a growing body of research indicating a link between mood affective disorders and problem gambling; such as the part played by stress, loneliness, anxiety and depression in the development of gambling disorder.

There is also, it would seem, a genetic predisposition to gamble – that a person’s genes can play a part in whether they are at elevated risk of their gambling becoming a pathological compulsion.

But for neuroscientists, those who spend their days gazing at chemical changes in the brain, there is no mystery to what feeds the loss of control. Its motivations are rooted in primitive urges, emotions and feelings fed by chemical ‘rewards’ – little waves of pleasure and heightened anticipation – released from deep within the human brain.

When we gamble the observable changes to the chemistry of the brain are as obvious to the neuroscientist as the colour changes of a sunset sky.

Under PET scans (positron emission tomography), the gambler’s brain, when gambling, ‘lights up’ with the same, or similar, chemical changes seen when people take drugs, smoke a cigarette or drink alcohol.    

It’s not the winning that keeps them coming back, not even the losing, it’s “the playing” that sits behind the impulse to gamble.

Because it’s the playing that triggers the release of ‘feel good’ chemicals in the brain – like dopamine and adrenalin – and it’s these chemicals that set the waiting trap of addiction for the pathological gambler.

Some facts about gambling and gambling disorder:

  • Problem gamblers are at increased risk of suicide and substance use disorders
  • Up to 17.0 percent of suicidal patients seen by The Alfred hospital’s emergency department is a problem gambler (SOURCE: Kulkarni Prof. J., Director, Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre, https://www.smh.com.au/national/gambling-linked-to-one-in-five-suicidal-patients-20100420-srri.html)
  • Problem gambling and mental health disorders are strongly linked:
    • Around 24.06 percent of moderate risk gamblers and 41.86 percent of problem gamblers had been diagnosed with depression (1)
    • Around 20.0 percent of moderate risk gamblers and 39.53 percent of problem gamblers had been diagnosed with anxiety (1) (SOURCE: Victorian Department of Justice; A study of gambling in Victoria – problem gambling from a public health perspective, 2009)
    • Problem gamblers are nearly 20 times more likely to display severe psychological distress (SOURCE: Thomas S.A., Jackson A.C., Risk and Protective Factors and Comorbidities in Problem Gambling. Report to beyondblue, Monash University and the University of Melbourne 2008)
  • Children and siblings of pathological gamblers are eight times more likely to become problem gamblers than relatives of people without pathological gambling. (SOURCE: University of Iowa; Black Prof. D.W., 2014; https://now.uiowa.edu/2014/06/pathological-gambling-runs-families)
  • Problem gamblers and drug addicts share many of the same genetic predispositions for impulsivity and reward seeking (SOURCE: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-brain-gets-addicted-to-gambling)
  • A US study found that 44 percent of problem gamblers also have a lifetime history of alcohol use disorder (SOURCE: Cunningham–Williams, R.M., Cottler, L.B., et al; Taking chances: Problem gamblers and mental health disorders, American Journal of Public Health, 1998)

So how are you travelling? If your life is gripped by gambling – you skate from pay-cheque to pay-cheque, your credit cards are ‘maxed’, you find yourself borrowing from payday lenders and keep making larger bets to chase money you’ve lost – you may be well-advanced on the path to a chronic gambling problem.

And if you can’t bring it back under control, it can potentially swallow everything of value in your life.

There’s help out there you know. There is also help here at ADA Australia. Call our Friendly Ear service if you’d like to chat. We’ll help steer you in the right direction. Or call any of the other listed numbers following:

  • ADA Australia ‘A Friendly Ear’: 1800 232 287
  • Gambling Helpline: 1800 858 858
  • Gamblers Anonymous: gaaustralia.org.au (for state-based phone numbers)
  • Lifeline: 13 11 14

(NOTE: Information in this news article drawn from The Little Blue Book of WORKPLACE MENTAL HEALTH.)