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Compulsive gambling

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    Compulsive gambling

    People with compulsive gambling lose control of their betting behavior, often with serious consequences. They’re constantly chasing their losses, and they often go to extremes to hide their gambling. They may even resort to fraud or theft when faced with desperate financial problems.  Rather than being an addiction, compulsive gambling is technically classified as an impulse-control disorder — a disorder in which you can’t resist a temptation or drive to perform an act that’s harmful to you or someone else. Whatever the label, it’s difficult to overcome the powerful hook of compulsive gambling without professional treatment.  People with compulsive gambling are typically in it for the thrill, rather than the actual winnings. They find the action exciting and arousing.  The key difference between compulsive or problem gambling and social gambling is self-control. Each social gambling session usually lasts for a set period of time and involves pre-determined spending limits. It typically occurs with friends or colleagues rather than alone. The player gains satisfaction whether he/she wins or loses. (G. J. Smith, R. A. Volberg & H. J. Wynne (1994).)

    Signs and symptoms of compulsive gambling include: A preoccupation with gambling, Reliving past gambling experiences, Taking time from work or family life to gamble, Concealing gambling, Feeling guilt or remorse after gambling, Borrowing money or stealing to gamble, Failed efforts to cut back on gambling, Lying to hide gambling.  People with compulsive gambling often wager money that they need to pay bills. When they lose, they chase their losses, or attempt to gain back the money they’ve gambled away. They may turn to gambling both when they feel down and when they feel up. If they try to cut down on gambling, they may become restless or irritable.  Children of problem gamblers are at greater risk than others for developing a gambling problem themselves. One study found that 50% of the children of pathological gamblers were also pathological gamblers (H. Lesieur & M. Heineman, 1988).

    It’s not known what drives people to engage in compulsive gambling. Problems with certain naturally occurring chemicals in the brain may play a role. In particular, the neurotransmitters serotonin, nor-epinephrine (nor-adrenaline) and dopamine may be factors.  The following are specific Neurotransmitters that caused chemical changes in the brain and act as chemical messengers that enable nerve cells (neurons) to communicate. Neurotransmitters are released into the gaps (synapses) between nerve cells in the brain to help messages flow from one cell to another. If neurons don’t produce enough of these chemicals, messages aren’t communicated effectively. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that plays a key role in regulating mood and behavior.   Nor-epinephrine is  the hormone released in response to stress.  It has been linked to arousal and risk-taking in compulsive gamblers. Brain cells release dopamine as part of the reward system through which you learn to seek things that make you feel pleasure, such as food and sex. Dopamine plays a role in developing addiction. Together, these may set the stage for compulsive gambling.  On rare occasions, gambling becomes compulsive for some people with that very first wager, but more typically, gambling progresses through the years. In fact, you may spend years enjoying social gambling without any ill effects. But more and more gambling or a stressor in your life may trigger you to go down the path of compulsive gambling. Typically, how frequently you gamble and how much money you bet progressively increases. During periods of stress or depression, the urge to gamble may be especially overpowering. Eventually, you become almost completely preoccupied with gambling and getting money to gamble. If compulsive gambling has gotten out of your control, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional who specializes in impulse-control disorders or addictions.  By the time most compulsive gamblers seek help, they are hugely in debt, owing as much as $120,000 or more, and their families are in a shambles. About 80% seriously consider suicide, and 13 to 20% actually attempt it or succeed in killing themselves. (Jane E. Brody, 1999)

    Your gambling may be out of control if it is affecting your relationships, your finances or your work life.  You’re devoting more and more time and energy to gambling pursuits. You’ve unsuccessfully tried to stop or cut back on your gambling.  You try to conceal your gambling from loved ones or health professionals.  You resort to theft or fraud to get gambling money.  You ask others to bail you out of financial woes because you’ve gambled money away, have family members, friends or co-workers expressed concern about your gambling? If so, openly listen to their worries. Because denial is nearly always a characteristic of compulsive or addictive behavior, it may be difficult for you to recognize that you have compulsive gambling and to seek help on your own. It may take a loved one to persuade you that you have a problem that needs treatment.  Seek help at the first sign of a problem. Doing so can reduce the risk that your compulsive gambling will lead to severe family problems and financial woes.  Treating compulsive gambling can be challenging. That’s partly because for many people, it’s hard to admit that compulsive gambling is a problem in their life. A major component of treatment is working on acknowledging that compulsive gambling is a problem for you. If you feel that you entered treatment under pressure from loved ones or your employer, you may find yourself resisting your treatment plans. But know that treatment can help you regain a sense of happiness and control — and perhaps even help heal damaged relationships or finances.  There’s no one specific way to prevent someone from developing compulsive gambling. But because gambling often escalates over time, not gambling at all, avoiding situations in which gambling occurs, and not gambling around vulnerable people may help prevent the development of a gambling compulsion. The proliferation of lotteries, Internet gaming and casinos provides easier access to gambling. If you have risk factors for compulsive gambling, avoiding such betting facilities may help. Getting treatment at the earliest sign of a problem also can help prevent a gambling disorder from worsening.

    The lure of gambling is hard to overcome if you think you’ll win the next time. Here are some recovery skills that may help you remain focused on resisting the urges of compulsive gambling: Tell yourself that it’s too risky to gamble at all. One bet typically leads to another and another.  Give yourself permission to ask for help, as part of realizing that sheer will power isn’t enough to overcome compulsive gambling.  Stay focused on your No. 1 goal: Not to gamble. Coping skills to better manage the other issues in your life can only be initiated when you aren’t gambling. Recognize and then avoid situations that trigger your urge to bet.  Make a point of engaging in supportive self-help activities. Add healthy social activities that don’t involve gambling. Acknowledge setbacks and return to your recovery plan.  Be honest with family members and friends. Tell them how they can help you stick to your recovery plan. Ask them to encourage your use of coping skills when the urge to gamble strikes.


    Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Compulsive Gambling.

               [Electronic Version]. 16 January2007 from


    G. J. Smith, R. A. Volberg & H. J. Wynne. (1994) Leisure behavior on the edge: Differences

             between controlled and uncontrolled gambling practices. Society and Leisure.

    Jane E. Brody, “Compulsive Gambling: Overlooked Addiction,” New York Times, May 4, 1999,


    H. Lesieur & M. Heineman (1988). Pathological gambling among youthful multiple substance

             abusers in a therapeutic community. British Journal of Addictions, 83, 765-771. from



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