Gambling is a popular recreational activity in which individuals wager something of value on an event with uncertain outcome. In some cases, the gambler loses money, which leads to a negative mood and may jeopardize relationships or job opportunities. This type of behavior is called pathological gambling (PG). Research into gambling behaviour has focused on two broad issues: how this recreational activity can become dysfunctional and what it tells us about human decision-making mechanisms. Pathological gambling is often associated with a variety of disorders, including depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Research needs to explore how these other disorders can trigger or worsen the problem of gambling, and how a person can overcome the urge to gamble.
Many factors contribute to the development of a gambling disorder, including biological, environmental and cognitive components. Biologically, gambling appears to involve the reward system of the brain, which responds to stimuli such as winning money and can lead to a false sense of control. Environmentally, the gambling environment is usually highly accessible and involves a lot of visual, auditory and kinesthetic cues that are easily reinforced. In addition, many gamblers report that their gambling behaviour is influenced by other people and family members who gamble and by social pressures to gamble.
A person’s ability to control impulses plays an important role in the development of a gambling disorder, particularly when the individual is experiencing a depressed mood. Several studies have reported that up to 50% of people with a gambling disorder also have a depressive disorder, and there is evidence that the depressive mood both precedes and coincides with the onset of gambling disorders.
There is considerable consensus that impulsive behaviour is central to the development of gambling disorder, and this includes a lack of attention to consequences, as well as a distorted appraisal of control during gambling. In addition, research suggests that gambling involves the arousal of physiological and emotional states through environmental cues such as flashing lights and the chiming of coins, which can be conditioned through Pavlovian processes to elicit an instrumental response in the gambler.
Various types of psychotherapy can help people with gambling disorders. These therapies can include psychodynamic therapy, which looks at unconscious processes and focuses on increasing self-awareness; group therapy, in which a group of people meets to describe their problems and support each other; and cognitive behavioural therapy, which helps people identify unhealthy emotions and behaviors and change them. Besides psychotherapy, people who are trying to quit gambling should find other ways to spend their time, and seek treatment for any other mental health problems that might be contributing to their addictive behaviour, such as stress and depression. They should also take steps to prevent financial losses by getting rid of credit cards, putting someone else in charge of their money and closing online betting accounts. Finally, they should avoid isolation and surround themselves with positive, non-gambling friends. This will provide a much-needed source of moral support and encourage them to move forward with their recovery.