Compulsive Gambling Is a Behavioural Addiction

Updated: Sep 8, 2019



Experts used to think of addiction as solely a dependency on a chemical substance. The idea that someone could become addicted to a habit like gambling the way a person gets hooked on a drug was controversial. Gambling was generally regarded as a compulsion — a behaviour primarily motivated by the need to relieve anxiety, like pyromania or kleptomania.

However, based on a better understanding of neuroscience, addiction is now defined as repeatedly pursuing a rewarding experience despite serious repercussions. Researchers agree that gambling is a true addiction.

What Is a Behavioural Addiction?

Addiction can occur in many forms. The compulsion to continually engage in an activity or behaviour despite the negative impact on a person’s ability to remain mentally and/or physically healthy and functional in the home and community defines behavioural addiction. The person may find the behaviour rewarding psychologically or get a “high” while engaged in the activity but may later feel guilt, remorse, or overwhelmed by the consequences of the continued choice. Unfortunately, as is common for all who struggle with addiction, people living with behavioural addictions are usually unable to stop engaging in the behaviour for any length of time without treatment and intervention.

Now, science is trying to determine what behaviours qualify as addictions. Potentially, anything pleasurable from Oreos to Facebook to yoga could be addictive. In the International Classification of Diseases, the World Health Organisation includes “gaming disorder” in its list of mental health conditions. Officially, internet gaming, chronic and debilitating grief, and caffeine-use disorder were named “worthy of more study.” Unofficially, internet addiction, compulsive shopping and sex, food addiction, and kleptomania are on most psychology professionals lists of addictive behaviours.

Just Like a Drug

Research has confirmed that drugs and gambling alter many of the same brain circuits in similar ways. A series of circuits in your brain, known as the reward system, links various regions involved in memory, movement, pleasure, and motivation. When you engage in activities that help keep you alive or pass on your genes, neurons in the reward system release the neurochemical dopamine.

Dopamine is a chemical messenger that carries signals in your brain and is responsible for motivation and reward-seeking behaviour. Dopamine heightens the pull of a stimulus -- the urge to repeat a behaviour. The first time you do something pleasurable, you get a dopamine reward after the event. On subsequent occasions, the dopamine gets released earlier and earlier until just thinking about something or seeing a trigger causes a dopamine surge. The dopamine preceding the action motivates you to perform the behaviour, and an addiction is born.

Studies show that pathological gamblers and drug addicts share many of the same genetic predispositions for impulsivity and reward seeking. Just as substance addicts require increasingly stronger hits to get high, compulsive gamblers need ever riskier ventures. Both drug addicts and problem gamblers endure symptoms of withdrawal when separated from the object they desire.

Understanding Gambling Addiction Allows for Better Treatment Options

Redefining compulsive gambling as an addiction is not merely a matter of semantics. A better understanding of what's happening in the brain allows for better treatment options. Therapists have found that pathological gamblers respond more successfully to medications and therapies typically used for addictions -- rather than strategies for taming compulsions. Medications used to treat substance addictions have proven effective in treating gambling addictions. Opioid antagonists, such as naltrexone, indirectly inhibit brain cells from producing dopamine, thereby reducing cravings.

Studies confirm that another effective treatment for gambling addiction is a type of talk therapy, called cognitive-behaviour therapy. Cognitive behavioural therapy teaches people to challenge and change habitual thoughts and behaviours. Gambling addicts may, for example, learn to confront and reframe irrational beliefs about gambling and interrupt the behavioural patterns.

At Start Recovery, we understand how an addiction takes shape in your brain. We also understand the process of interrupting the cycle to break addiction's grip on your brain. Start Recovery will work with you as an individual, putting together a personalised care plan to ensure that you have the best possible information, help and guidance in your recovery journey from substance abuse, alcoholism or addiction.


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