Gambling Addiction and the Connection to Substance Abuse

For some, visiting a casino and dropping a few quarters into a slot machine doesn’t present much of a problem. In fact, millions of Americans visit Las Vegas every year and return home having experienced a wonderful vacation. For others, the risk-taking involved in gambling – the thrill – can pose a much larger problem.

The psychiatric community has recognized that gambling can be a problem for many years. The most recent publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – the guidelines used by psychiatrists and psychologists so that each diagnosis is formed in a similar manner among a cross section of patients – lists gambling disorderswith other compulsive behaviors. The newest edition of the manual will change gambling from an obsessive-compulsive disorder to an addiction.

Signs and Symptoms of Gambling Addiction Mimic Substance Abuse Disorder

According to information provided by the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, there are 10 criteria that are currently listed to indicate a problem. While not all of the criteria are slated for inclusion in the new manual, they are similar in many aspects to those criteria used for diagnosing addiction.

1. Time spent thinking about gambling
Does this person consistently talk about, think about, and spend a considerable amount of time working toward the opportunity to gamble?

When an individual is diagnosed with substance dependence, a similar criteria is used: Does the individual spend an exorbitant amount of time figuring out where to get their drugs of abuse, and does he or she constantly worry about when and where they will be able to obtain their next dose?

2. The presence of tolerance.
Generally speaking, when discussing the abuse of drugs or alcohol, tolerance is a physical condition. The body becomes physically more in tune with the drugs that are being ingested, and more drugs are needed in order to achieve the same type of euphoric effects experienced previously.

For example, an individual may use two or three Lortab tablets in the beginning of their substance abuse path, but later they find that two or three pills are not enough. In order to achieve the same “high,” they need to take five or six pills. Each person is unique and different, of course, and the level to which an individual’s abuse may soar is based upon many other factors.

On the other side of the coin, an individual who suffers from a gambling addiction might have to consistently increase the value of each bet in order to achieve the thrill that they’re looking for. Perhaps in the beginning they were excited to win a $5 bet, but as the problem progresses, $5 isn’t nearly enough. They may begin to bet hundreds of dollars at a time, which, of course, increases the amount they may lose.

3. The presence of withdrawal symptoms.
Likewise, an individual who suffers from addiction to gambling will also experience a type of withdrawal in many cases. It is not a physical withdrawal, as with some drugs of abuse or alcohol, however, individuals who cut back on their gambling or who stop gambling for a period of time may experience irritability and other emotions that affect their mood.


Other symptoms and warning signs of gambling addiction:

  • Avoiding one’s problems through gambling. This is similar to the avoidance that someone addicted to drugs will experience as the drugs encourage a feeling that nothing else matters.
  • Counteracting the negative effects of gambling with more gambling. Known as “chasing” one’s losses, addicted gamblers will return to a casino to try to earn back the dollars they have lost in much the same way that someone addicted to cocaine will use more cocaine to avoid the cocaine-induced depression that follows a binge.
  • Dishonesty can appear in two forms. Lying to one’s family and friends about the level of their gambling practices as well as committing illegal activities to support one’s habit are traits that also appear for those who are struggling with drug addiction.
  • Strain on family relationships is present in both conditions, with significant arguments occurring due to both destructive behaviors.
  • Significant losses of a financial nature are common due to excessive gambling, and it is often necessary for friends and family to supplement income and pay necessary bills, such as rent, for an individual who has a gambling problem. Those individuals affected by drug addiction will often spend their money on drugs rather than paying for these necessary obligations, also relying on family members to bail them out.
  • An inability to stop gambling, or even cut back on the frequency or dollar amounts gambled, is similar to a drug addict’s inability to stop using drugs.


Brain Reactions Are Similar for Drugs and Gambling

Evidence has shown that both drug abuse and gambling affect similar parts of the brain. Research published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine states that gambling can affect levels of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, as well as the GABA neurotransmitters. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has also indicated that these parts of the brain are altered through drug abuse and addiction to drugs.

Brain Basics

To understand how each of these conditions relates to these parts of the brain, it is necessary to understand what each of these brain chemicals do for us as well as how the brain works normally. For instance, the human brain is made up of brain cells called neurons. In between each neuron is a space, called the synapse.  

Each neuron can send and receive messages about how we feel, what we’re thinking, and how we behave.

One neuron will release a chemical, called a neurotransmitter, into the synapse and an adjoining neuron will receive that chemical. Various neurons contain receptors and transporters. The receptor is the part of the neuron that receives the chemical messengers traveling through the synapse, and the transporter is the part of the neuron that recycles any excess chemical left in the synapse. The transporter is located on the same neuron that released the message to begin with.


The “Feel Good” Neurotransmitter”

gambling addictionOne important neurotransmitter related to both drug addiction and gambling is dopamine. Dopamine, according to an article published in Psychology Today, has two characteristics that are related to addiction in general.

First, it’s a “feel good” chemical associated with rewards. Imagine you are stranded on a desert island and you haven’t had any fresh water for hours or even days. You go in search of water and discover that a fresh water source is located directly north of the signal fire you’ve lit on the beach. You experience a rush of joy and elation when you find the spring. This feeling of euphoria is due to the dopamine that has been released in your brain.

Secondly, it plays a part in learning. When you find the water source, you commit the location of this life-giving source of water to your memory. Dopamine does more than make us feel wonderful; it helps us learn what makes us feel that way. Certain drugs can increase the production of natural dopamine, mimick the chemical itself, or block the ability of the transporters in the brain to recycle the dopamine floating in the synapse.

When someone uses a drug that affects dopamine levels, the person will both feel better and then learn what activity or substance created the euphoria.

An individual who experiences that rush from winning even a small jackpot during the course of gambling learns that pulling the lever or pressing the button on a slot machine has the ability to make them feel great.


Treatment Approaches Are Similar

If the behaviors associated with addiction are learned, is it possible to unlearn them?  According to the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists, it is not only possible, but it is effective. Cognitive function, which refers to one’s ability to think, and our behaviors are connected.

The basic premise for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy addresses the link between our perceptions of the world around us and how we translate that into our actions.

The people and circumstances of our lives have less control over how we behave than we think they do.

For instance, an individual who sees a slot machine and has learned that they feel amazing if they win may blame the presence of that slot machine for their problem. Perhaps, if they thought of that machine in a different way, they would not be as anxious to gamble. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been used in the treatment of drug addiction in much the same way. An individual who perceives they are unworthy of love may turn to drugs to create a different reality for themselves, one in which they feel they are more powerful or more beautiful.

By helping an individual learn that the drugs do not change them at the most basic level, and by addressing the issues that have caused the feelings of unworthiness, this person unlearns the association between drugs and self-worth.

Other Benefits of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for Gambling and Substance Abuse:

  • CBT is a short-term method that involves active participation, homework assignments, and goal setting.
  • CBT allows the individual to determine their own course of actions to improve the quality of their life. The therapist helps them learn how to feel better without telling them how to feel.
  • CBT shows an individual how to operate from a position of knowledge and fact, rather than making assumptions about the world around them.
  • CBT develops an equal partnership between therapist and patient, or both parties work in tandem to reach goals.

How to Get Help for Gambling Addiction

If you or someone you love may be suffering from a gambling addiction, it is important to get help as soon as possible. Because gambling problems have not yet been universally recognized as an addiction, it is important to find the treatment you need at a facility that has already advanced to the newest methods in the field.

Feel free to contact us at (877) 345-1887 to find out more about how our treatment methods and dedication to gambling recovery can help you.