Gambling is the betting of something of value, usually money, on an uncertain event whose outcome depends at least partly on chance. Although most people who gamble do so without any problems, a small subset develops gambling disorder, which is now classified as a behavioral addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). People with problem gambling may feel intense urges to gamble and often find themselves unable to stop. Their behaviors can affect their health, work, and personal relationships. They may also have a history of other psychological and emotional problems such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.
Humans are biologically wired to seek pleasure and reward. When we do healthy things such as spending time with loved ones or eating a delicious meal, our brain releases the chemical dopamine, which gives us the positive feelings we crave. Sadly, many people turn to gambling in an attempt to get the same positive feelings that they experience through healthy activities. But gambling can be extremely dangerous and can lead to significant harm in all areas of a person’s life.
Various reasons for the widespread appeal of gambling include recreational interest, diminished mathematical skills, poor judgment, cognitive distortions and underlying mental illness. These varied perspectives have led to a lack of consensus about the nature and causes of gambling behavior, especially problematic gambling. Nevertheless, the research on gambling has produced a number of important findings.
One is that most people who gamble do so because they enjoy the thrill of the potential for a big win, which is a feeling that can be very addictive. Another finding is that gambling tends to increase with age, and that young people are particularly vulnerable to developing problems. Finally, there is the recognition that gambling may be a form of escapism from distressing emotions and social pressures.
Longitudinal studies of gambling are becoming more common, but there are a number of practical and logistical barriers that make longitudinal studies difficult to conduct. For example, it is not always possible to maintain the same research team and sample over a long period of time; longitudinal data are subject to confounding effects due to changes in lifestyle, health, or demographic factors; and it is sometimes challenging to identify the causal effects of one variable on the other.
Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not approve any medications to treat gambling disorder, but psychotherapy can help people break unhealthy patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Several types of psychotherapy are available, including individual and group therapy, family or marital counseling, and cognitive behavioral therapy. These techniques can be used to identify and change unhealthy emotions and thoughts that drive gambling behaviors, and address underlying mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety. They can also be used to teach people healthier ways to cope with stress and boredom, such as exercise, socializing with friends who do not gamble, or practicing relaxation techniques.