Gambling addiction isn’t just all about a lack of will power. We spoke to a therapist who specializes in treating addictions to find out what it really is about. Did you know that becoming addicted to gambling can actually cause your brain to physically change?

Gambling before you’re 25 can also make you way more likely to develop problem gambling habits. Read on to pick up more fascinating insights into how a gambling addict’s life can unravel.

Beth Burgess is an Addiction Psychotherapist, academic and author of two books about gambling addiction and recovery. Over her lifetime she has come to terms with many personal issues herself. This includes overcoming alcoholism and social phobia. These days she is qualified psychotherapist and NLP practitioner who helps addicts through her recover coaching business Smyls.

Are there specific things that cause people to become gambling addicts?

The cause of gambling addiction is a mixture of nature and nurture, as well as environmental factors. Some people have a predisposition to addiction, which is caused by their genetic make-up. But gambling can also be inherently addictive, because it produces a high caused by a rush of dopamine to the brain.

Dopamine is usually referred to as a reward chemical, because we get it from things that are genuinely rewarding and help us survive and prosper, like socializing and eating. But dopamine is also a craving chemical. If artificially high amounts are released, as they are during thrilling things like gambling, it makes you want to do more of that activity.

In order to become seriously addicted, gamblers have to have the means to gamble (accessibility in the environment), a genetic predisposition to addiction, and beneath it all, some feeling they want to get rid of (usually low self-esteem), which the buzz of gambling masks.

What is the thought process of a gambler who carries on gambling when they’re losing?

it’s not just the thought process that is involved – people who become addicted have changed their brain chemistry. They will experience cravings to gamble and these will become particularly strong if they are stressed, bored or upset and want to change how they feel.

When does an addiction become and addiction?

An addiction occurs when someone is unable to stop doing something even when they want to quit.
It’s also possible to detect addiction in the brain. In MRI scans, certain areas of the brain light up when gambling addicts are exposed to betting situations, which doesn’t happen with non-addicts. So, it’s also a pathological process, not just a psychological one.

Do people with particular personalities tend to develop gambling problems more often?

Gambling addicts are likely to be impulsive people who actively seek out thrills and rewards. Science has shown that most addicts’ reward circuitry is genetically underactive, making them vulnerable to addictions, which helps them avoid the feeling of flatness that is the legacy of their brain chemistry.

At what age is a person most vulnerable to gambling addiction?

People can get addicted at any age, but people who start gambling when they are younger are more likely to experience problems. The pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which is involved in impulse control and making sound decisions, is not fully developed until around the age of 25, so risky behavior is more likely in youngsters. People aged 18-25 most often develop problems around gambling. If they continue to gamble, they are likely to develop a full-blown addiction in their 30s or 40s.

Can you think of any famous people who seem like they could be at risk of developing a gambling addiction?

Charlie Sheen is the classic addict. He has had problems with addiction to alcohol, drugs and sex and was deeply in denial about all of it for a long time.

Unless he manages to stay on track with his addiction treatment, he could be at risk of cross-addicting to gambling or spending, or even relapsing into his other addictions.

What’s the worst gambling story you’ve heard from a patient?

I treated a young man who had lost his flat due to losing so much money gambling. He was forced to move back to his parents’ house. Then, he started stealing from his parents in order to feed his habit. It was a particularly sad case, because I spoke to his parents as well and they were heartbroken both that their son had got into this trap, and that they couldn’t trust him any more. They were on the verge of kicking him out unless he agreed to get help.

Can medication cure gambling addiction?

Medication can only ever be a sticking plaster in the case of most addictions. Proper psychoeducation and therapy means that someone will be able to develop knowledge, tools, and inner resources to help them stay away from gambling and other addictions in future.

Do you think online gambling makes it easier for people to become addicted to gambling?

Online gambling is anonymous, so addicted gamblers don’t feel shamefaced about hanging around a bookmakers or casino, or anyone seeing how much they bet or how often.

Do you think the media plays a role in encouraging problem gambling?

Casinos are often portrayed as glamorous and luxurious in the media, particularly in films. Poker is often portrayed as a cool thing that clever people can win a lot of money with. These positive representations may attract people to gambling. I don’t think many other forms of betting or gambling are promoted as high-status activities.

If you have been addicted to gambling before, are you more at risk of getting addicted to something else?

People who are addicts often experience cross-addictions because of their brain chemistry. This means that if they give up gambling, they may have to be careful around alcohol, drugs, sugar, caffeine, nicotine and other things that produce an excess of dopamine.

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