Gambling addiction: How common it is, impacts and treatment

Sin City, as Las Vegas is called, is a city that houses the highest number of casinos in the world. It has been at the center of gambling since it was legalized in the state of Nevada in the early 1900s. These casinos host different forms of gambling, like poker, roulette, and slots, and one impact of this is the increasing rate of gambling addiction.

The origins of gambling or betting on games can be traced back to the Paleolithic period, but the casinos in Las Vegas have transformed it into a highly alluring activity. These gaming establishments have become pivotal to the city's economy, relying heavily on gambling and various forms of entertainment to flourish.

But Las Vegas is not the only city where gambling is prevalent. The North American Foundation for Gambling Addiction Help reports that approximately 10 million people in the U.S. have some type of gambling issue. Unsurprisingly, an NBC report shows that a total of $1.5 billion was made from sports betting in 2020.

Moving towards Africa, according to a study that shares an overview of gambling in Nigeria, many Nigerians regard gambling as harmless, and about one-third of the country’s adult population have gambled at some point in their life.

But what impact does gambling have on people and society?

Because of the financial risks associated with gambling and the digitization of betting processes, many people might just be a click away from losing all that they have worked for.

But that's not all that there is to it.

Many people who go into gambling are at risk of developing a form of addiction called gambling addiction or gambling disorder.

What is gambling addiction?

Gambling addiction, or gambling disorder, is a chronic mental health condition that occurs when an individual no longer has control of their gambling activities.

For people with gambling addictions, gambling is no longer something they do of their own will or have control over. Instead, gambling becomes an obsession, and it is acted upon based on impulse and not reason. Individuals at this stage no longer weigh their risks against benefits or consequences; all they want to do is satisfy that addictive craving.

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV), gambling addiction was classified as an impulse control disorder, while in the fifth edition, It is classified as a non-substance addiction, a first of its kind.

Gambling as a behavioral addiction

Addiction has been defined in different ways: 

  1. Continued engagement in a behavior despite adverse or negative consequences
  2. Compulsive engagement in the behavior
  3. Decreased self-control over engagement in the behavior
  4. An appetitive urge or craving state prior to engaging in the behavior.

Researchers have recognized that certain behaviors (such as addiction to gambling) resemble alcohol and drug dependence and have suggested that these behaviors warrant consideration as non-substance or behavioral addictions. 

Similar brain regions (ventral striatum and orbitofrontal cortex) have been identified to contribute to the cause of gambling and substance addiction. This may explain why they share similar behavioral patterns. 

The role of dopamine hormone in gambling addiction

Dopamine is the hormone responsible for the reward system. The reward system includes structures in the brain that initiate and process rewarding experiences. This system responds to stimuli that are satisfying (rewarding), e.g., money, sex, food, (and, in this case, gambling).

Once this system is activated, the brain releases the dopamine hormone, making an individual feel good and providing a sense of pleasure and accomplishment while reinforcing the behavior that led to that reward. This rapid and intense release of the dopamine hormone in the brain is known as the dopamine rush.

Interestingly, the dopamine hormone is also released when you anticipate success or a big win, as is the case when you bet your money on something. This fuels your motivation and strengthens your will to persist and keep on gambling to win or to win more.

So, the dopamine rush for chasing and always anticipating a big win remains at the heart of the behavioral addiction in gambling. It is also present in substance addictions like cocaine. 

Factors contributing to gambling addiction

The following factors can contribute to gambling addiction:

1. Psychological factors

Betting on sports, especially during weekends, has become increasingly widespread globally, notably in countries like Nigeria, where a significant rise in youth involvement has been noted. 

This trend aligns with the occurrence of major European league matches during this period. 

Participants often make multiple predictions, ranging from the first-scoring team to overall match outcomes. Even if only one prediction out of several is incorrect, the "near miss syndrome" phenomenon emerges, encouraging continued betting in the hope of future success. 

This mentality creates a cycle where individuals remain engaged in betting, believing that a single win can offset previous losses, thus fueling ongoing participation in sports betting activities. 

Other factors include the “get rich quick” syndrome and the belief that one is luckier than others and is, therefore, guaranteed to win or succeed in betting. 

2. Social and environmental factors

Peer pressure is real. This factor has contributed hugely to the scale of betting, as no one wants to be left out. 

Many places in Las Vegas, for instance, have some form of advertisement for gambling, which can lead to reflex betting or gambling because they put these ads right in your face everywhere you go. 

The use of celebrities by some gambling companies to advertise is another hook that traps the unlooking gambler. The glamorization of winners of lottery games is another subtle act targeted at winning more people for the gaming industry. 

3. Biological factors

Gambling addiction can be genetic, as some genetic factors have been linked to it. Variant forms of the genes that are responsible for producing the binding sites of dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline chemicals have been associated with gambling addiction.

The impact of gambling addiction

Many may not realize the hidden addiction lurking behind gambling. With its widespread participation, celebrity endorsements in advertisements, legal backing in most countries, and easy internet accessibility, many enter into it without considering the potential negative consequences.

But, with people coming forward to describe how this activity has affected their finances, mental health, and relationships, it is critical that we look at some of the issues they face.

  • Financial problem: A gambling addict wouldn’t mind going through a lot of trouble to source money to satisfy their craving. This includes taking a credit facility, borrowing money from loved ones, taking a salary advance, and taking loans from loan apps. This can cause a huge debt burden and bankruptcy over time. 
  • Relationship breakdowns:  With gambling addiction comes lies, secrecy, and negligence, which can affect a person’s relationship with their loved ones. People with gambling addictions often don’t have control over this habit, and continuously losing money in games can leave irreparable cracks and tension in their relationships.
  • Mental health issues: Similar to other forms of addiction, gambling addiction can affect a person’s mental health, causing issues like anxiety and depression. It may increase a person’s stress level, which is another factor that can affect mental health. 
  • Anger and domestic violence: Betting on multiple games and losing can make a person frustrated and angry. They may end up taking out their frustration on members of their household. 

Treatment and support options for people with gambling addiction

One study done by a U.S. national survey, the Gambling Impact and Behavior Study, with 2417 participants, showed that about one-third of those with gambling disorders, as characterized by DSM-IV, recovered naturally. They neither sought formal treatment nor attended support group meetings. 

This study indicates that, in some cases, people are able to deal with their addictions even without professional help. But not everyone can stop their addictive behaviors on their own. Most people will need support and treatment. 

Some of the available treatment options for gambling addiction include:


Due to the overlapping symptoms shown by people with gambling disorders and substance disorder, the pharmacological approach seems to take the same path. 

While there are no FDA-approved medicines for the treatment of gambling disorders currently, the classes of medication named below have been found to be efficacious and tolerable in people who have gambling disorders: 

  • Serotonin reuptake inhibitors like paroxetine
  • Opioid antagonists like naltrexone
  • Mood stabilizers like lithium and others like bupropion and N-acetyl-cysteine 

Paroxetine from random clinical trials showed mixed results; positive and negative, lithium showed consistent positive results, but data from naltrexone showed the most consistent positive result with gambling disorders.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT targets cognitive distortions like mind reading and fortune telling, craving states, and poor coping strategies in patients who have gambling disorder. It helps treat addiction by taking a look at the cause of a person’s addictive behavior and its consequences and helping them unlearn the behavior and replace it with better-coping strategies.

Motivational therapy

This approach can be combined with other types of therapies. In motivational therapy, the patient is given a chance to air their argument on the subject matter while the therapist listens to them, makes them realize their willpower to stop gambling, encourages them, and designs a plan in conjunction with them to help them get out of the woods. 

Positive results have been achieved through this method, but more studies need to be carried out to ascertain if these positive results can be maintained for a long time.

Addiction support groups

Addiction support groups like Gamblers Anonymous, which specifically target people with gambling addiction, can be helpful for people who want to ditch their gambling habits. 

This organization is the largest support group for people with gambling disorders. It's an all-inclusive group where people gather to share their stories and strengthen each other. No fees are required; all that is required is the admission of a gambling disorder. 

Final words

To deal with or avoid gambling addiction, it’s important that people understand that appearance can be deceptive. Just because someone won $1 million in the lottery doesn't mean that it is true for most. They could have won out hundreds of thousands of people who played the same game and lost. Those in charge of the games will never allow their businesses to go bankrupt. 

Gambling disorder is just as real as substance disorder. While it is okay to spend your money the way you want to, it’s best to do so within your control and not breed an addictive habit. 

Most people with gambling addictions are unaware that they have an addiction. If you suspect you do, notice you have no control over it, or find yourself keep going back to gambling despite it negatively affecting your life, then you should consider seeking professional help.  


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