Whether it’s buying a lotto ticket, betting on sport or putting money on the pokies, gambling is a risky activity. For some people this can be fun, but for others it can damage their health and wellbeing, impact relationships, affect work or study performance and even lead to debt and homelessness. Problem gambling can also have a negative impact on family, friends and the community.
When you gamble, your brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel excited. But it turns out your brain isn’t able to tell when you should stop, which can be dangerous. People with a high level of compulsive gambling may be unable to recognize that they have reached their limit, or that they’re taking unnecessary risks, for example by chasing losses.
In the past, the psychiatric community has viewed pathological gambling as a form of impulse control disorder, a category that includes kleptomania, pyromania and trichotillomania (hair pulling). But this month, the APA moved pathological gambling into the addictions chapter of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This is a big change that recognizes that gambling has become an addiction in its own right.
The causes of gambling problems are complex and varied. They include genetic predisposition, brain circuitry involved in reward processing and impulse control, and the influence of culture and social norms on how gambling is viewed. In addition, underlying mood disorders like depression or anxiety can trigger gambling problems and make them worse.