Is gambling addiction real, or is it just a behavioral problem?
And why is this distinction even important?
The Japan Times says that “Compulsive gambling can be attributed to a brain disorder that renders addicts incapable of determining appropriate risk.”
Another interesting thing to note is that many people who are addicted to gambling are also addicted to other substances as well, though it is not always a direct one to one ratio. In other words, some gambling addicts are only addicted to gambling, apparently.
But there are other studies being done recently that point to the idea that drug and alcohol addiction are “real” diseases of the brain, whereas gambling addiction is really something else entirely. Not that gambling addiction does not have real consequences, because it can obviously be very destructive. We just don’t know yet if it is the same kind of brain disorder as when a person is addicted to chemicals.
Technology Networks says that “Mapping the connection between learning and reward is essential if we’re to understand human behavior and how to improve treatment of brain disorders.” In other words, we need to understand how motivation is working at the molecular level, at the level of the human brain, when it comes to both chemical addiction as well as gambling addiction. Only after we can see the actual brain activity and compare the two will we really be able to tell exactly what is going on when it comes to gambling disorders.
This is important because if we can better understand gambling disorders then we have a better chance of treating it appropriately. The same could be said of drug and alcohol addictions, where we are still diving into the actual brain research when it comes to mapping out exactly how addiction works at the level of the brain.
One of the things that is interesting to note is how opening a new casino affects gambling addiction in a given area. A few studies have been done in this regard, especially from therapists who specialize in treating gambling addiction in which they carefully watched their attendance when a new casino opened nearby.
The therapists expected for a spike in the number of people who were seeking gambling addiction help. What happened in nearly every case like this, however, is that the number of people seeking help maintained at even or declined after the casino opened. This seems to hold true even several years later after the casino opened.
What is going on? It is difficult to say for sure, but one conclusion could certainly be drawn: Having more access to casinos definitely does not cause more people to seek help for gambling addiction. That is the obvious statistic that we are seeing.
But does this mean that gambling addiction is not occurring?
People are still becoming addicted to gambling, regardless of their access to a casino. The best way to say it might be “Gambling addiction is a really big problem for a very small percentage of people, and most who have the problem do not likely seek help for it.”
So what can learn from this, and how does it affect our treatment of addiction in general? Certainly awareness, education, and prevention should still be an important step in the fight against all addictions. Another thing that may be important is the idea of screening for gambling addiction when someone is seeking substance abuse therapy, and also screening for chemical addiction when someone is seeking help for a gambling problem–simply because the two problems tend to have quite a bit of overlap.
It is interesting to compare gambling addiction to chemical substance abuse, and how they can be quite similar. Every gambling addict has to suffer through pain, because every gambling eventually hits a devastating losing streak. This is not a theory, it is simply the numbers: Everyone will, given enough time and gambling, experience both winning and losing streaks. And when the gambling addict hits a big losing streak they endure a great deal of pain, just as the alcoholic or drug addict endures the pain that they get from the negative consequences of their addiction: broken relationships, lost jobs, and so on.
And what is really similar about the two kinds of addiction (gambling versus substance abuse) is that we eventually become addicted to the pain. The gambler initially gets addicted to the high of winning, just as the alcoholic gets addicted to the pain and misery of alcoholism. Why does this happen?
Because the pain is comfortable. The pain is familiar, it is what we know. And so we go through this cycle of pain and misery, followed by that brief high when we enjoy a gambling win or the perfect drinking session, and then that is followed by the inevitable pain and loss and crushing consequences of addiction. But over time, and because we come to experience this cycle so much, we get used to the pain.
And we might try to imagine a life in recovery, in which there is no more addiction, and it scares the heck out of us. We cannot picture ourselves happy in that scenario, because we have never really known happiness outside of our high, outside of our peak moments.
And perhaps this, more than anything, is what keeps the compulsive gambler stuck in their destructive cycle. This is what keeps the alcoholic stuck in their cycle of drinking as well–the fear of the unknown. At least the pain and the misery and the suffering is familiar, it is known, it is safe. We know what to expect when we continue to self medicate, whether it is gambling or it is chemicals.
It is this cycle of pain and “joy” that defines gambling addiction, and I believe it is this same cycle that defines chemical addiction as well. In that sense, the jury may still be out on whether or not gambling addiction is a true disease of the brain or not, but I think that people can definitely become addicted to a lifestyle of pain and reward.
The solution, as always, is to arrest the behavior completely and to start living a life of personal growth and positive action. This takes a great deal of courage, and it is far easier to stay stuck in the misery and the chaos of our addictions.