Gambling involves betting something of value on an event that is determined by chance, with the hope of gaining something of greater value. Examples of gambling include placing bets on horse racing, games of skill like poker or blackjack, and lottery tickets. In recent years, Internet gambling and mobile phone apps have made gambling more accessible to many people. Gambling can be a fun and exciting way to spend time, but it can also be harmful if you’re not in control of your finances. If you’re concerned that your gambling is out of control, there are organisations that can help with financial management and debt counselling.
The risk of developing a gambling problem increases with age and sex. Women tend to develop a gambling problem more often than men, and they typically begin gambling at a later age. Pathological gambling is characterized by recurrent, maladaptive patterns of gambling behavior, despite the negative impact that these behaviors have on one’s life. PG is defined by the presence of at least three of the following criteria:
In May 2010, the American Psychiatric Association decided to treat compulsive gambling as an impulse-control disorder, moving it to the addictions chapter in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This change was based on new understanding of how the brain processes rewards and impulse control, and it was accompanied by changes to the DSM’s criteria for other impulsive disorders, including kleptomania, pyromania and trichotillomania (hair-pulling).
Researchers have discovered that certain genes may predispose people to become thrill seekers and show signs of impulsivity. In addition, the structure of the reward centres of the brain can influence how people make decisions. Some people have underactive reward systems, which may affect how they respond to rewards and risk.
When a person gambles, the body releases a chemical called dopamine. This chemical makes them feel happy and satisfied, which is why some people continue to gamble even when it causes problems in their lives. In some cases, the rewards from gambling are enough to mask other problems, such as relationship difficulties or poor health.
People who have a gambling problem may be reluctant to admit that they have a problem, or lie about their gambling activities. They might also try to find ways to hide money, or convince their family and friends that they are not gambling excessively. They might also use credit to fund their gambling. If you’re worried about a loved one’s gambling behaviour, it is important to seek professional help. A range of services offer support, assistance and counselling for people who have a gambling problem, as well as support for their families. For more information, see the Better Health Channel fact sheet ‘Gambling – financial issues’.