How Gambling Affects the Brain

Gambling is any activity that involves risking something of value, usually money, on the chance of winning a prize. Some examples of gambling are lotteries, bingo, pull-tab games, scratchcards and speculating. People often gamble at casinos or racetracks, but gambling can also take place in places such as gas stations, shops and church halls and on the Internet (Lopez-Gonzalez et al, 2017).

Those who gamble regularly can become addicted to it and experience harmful psychological, personal, social and professional consequences. This can lead to gambling disorders, which are formally recognised as impulse control disorders in the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. People with this condition may experience depression, anxiety and distress, as well as problems with eating and sleeping. They can also have financial and family issues. In severe cases, it can lead to suicide.

There are many organisations that offer support, assistance and counselling for people who have gambling problems. These services can help individuals and their families deal with the harm caused by problem gambling, as well as address other issues such as work or home life, education, family relationships, legal problems and financial difficulties.

Some organisations specialise in specific types of gambling, such as lottery or online betting. Others offer general advice for those who want to stop gambling, and can help them find healthier ways to relieve boredom or self-soothe unpleasant feelings. For example, they might suggest hobbies or other activities that don’t involve putting up a stake, such as exercising, spending time with friends who don’t gamble, or practicing relaxation techniques.

Research suggests that when people win a monetary prize, a region of the brain called the striatum becomes active. This is the same part of the brain that responds to the natural reinforcers of food and sexual stimuli, as well as drugs of abuse like cocaine. People with gambling addictions can also feel a similar reward when they win, which makes them more likely to keep trying.

The more someone gambles, the more they need to win to get the same “high”. They might start chasing their losses, thinking that they will be lucky again and recoup their lost money. This is called the gambling fallacy and can be very dangerous.

In addition to avoiding places where gambling is offered, people who have gambling problems can reduce their risk by keeping a tight rein on their finances. This might include getting rid of credit cards, having a trusted friend manage their money or having the bank make automatic payments for them. They should also avoid borrowing to fund their gambling habit. Finally, they should limit the amount of time spent gambling, and never gamble when they are depressed or upset. It is also important to set a time limit on how long they will play, and leave when they reach that point, whether they are winning or losing. They should also avoid tipping dealers in cash, and give them tips only in chips.