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Gambling Addiction and the Connection to Substance Abuse

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For some, visiting a casino and dropping a few quarters into a slot machine doesn’t present much of a problem. In fact, millions of Americans visit Las Vegas every year and return home having experienced a wonderful vacation. For others, the risk-taking involved in gambling – the thrill – can pose a much larger problem.

The psychiatric community has recognized that gambling can be a problem for many years. The most recent publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – the guidelines used by psychiatrists and psychologists so that each diagnosis is formed in a similar manner among a cross section of patients – lists gambling disorders with other addiction-related concerns. This type of addiction is commonly known as a “process addiction”. In other words, it is a behavior that some people become psychologically addicted to.

Signs and Symptoms of Gambling Addiction Mimic Substance Abuse Disorder

We’ve compiled a list of three criteria that may indicate the presence of a gambling addiction. If you suspect that you or someone you love might have a problem with gambling, it is a good idea to speak with a licensed mental health counselor or call our toll-free number to learn more. In the meantime, here are three symptoms that compulsive gambling may have become a problem in your life:

    Do you consistently talk about, think about, and spend a considerable amount of time working toward and thinking about the opportunities to gamble?
    When an individual is diagnosed with substance dependence, a similar question is used: Does the individual spend an exorbitant amount of time figuring out where to get their drugs of abuse, and does he or she constantly worry about how to get the next dose?
    Generally speaking, when discussing the abuse of drugs or alcohol, tolerance is a physical condition. Tolerance occurs body becomes physically accustomed to the drugs that are being ingested, and more drugs are needed in order to achieve the same type of euphoric effects that the person experienced the first time around.
    For example, an individual may use two or three Percocet tablets in the beginning of their substance abuse path, but later they find that two or three pills are not enough. In order to achieve the same “high,” they need to take five or six pills. This indicates that a tolerance has been built.
    On the other side of the coin, an individual who suffers from a gambling addiction might have to consistently increase the value of each bet in order to achieve the thrill that they’re looking for. Perhaps in the beginning they were excited to win a $5 bet, but as the problem progresses, $5 isn’t nearly enough. They may begin to bet hundreds of dollars at a time, which, of course, increases the amount they may lose.
    Likewise, an individual who suffers from an addiction to gambling will also experience a type of withdrawal. It is not a physical withdrawal, as with drug or alcohol withdrawal. Instead, compulsive gamblers who attempt to cut back on their gambling or who stop gambling for a period of time may experience irritability and other emotions that affect their mood.

Other symptoms and warning signs of gambling addiction:

  • Avoiding one’s problems through gambling. This is similar to the avoidance that someone addicted to drugs will experience as the drugs encourage a feeling that nothing else matters.
  • Counteracting the negative effects of gambling with more gambling. Known as “chasing” one’s losses, addicted gamblers will return to a casino to try to earn back the dollars they have lost in much the same way that someone addicted to cocaine will use more cocaine to avoid the cocaine-induced depression that follows a binge.
  • Dishonesty can appear in two forms. Lying to family and friends about the severity of gambling practices and/or committing illegal activities to support the habit are traits that also appear for those who are struggling with drug addiction.
  • Strain on family relationships is present in any addiction, and significant arguments often occur due to destructive behaviors.
  • Significant financial losses are common due to excessive gambling, and it is often necessary for friends and family to supplement income and pay necessary bills, such as rent, for an individual who has a gambling problem. These strains may also carry over into legal fees and over-drafted bank accounts, liens, or fines.
  • An inability to stop gambling, or even cut back on the frequency or dollar amounts gambled, is similar to a drug addict’s inability to stop using drugs.1

Drug Abuse and Gambling Impact the Brain in the Same Way

Evidence has shown that both drug abuse and gambling affect similar parts of the brain. As in drug use, gambling can affect levels of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, as well as the GABA neurotransmitters. These are the same parts of the brain are altered through drug abuse and addiction to drugs.

Brain Basics

To understand how each of these conditions relates to these parts of the brain, it is necessary to understand what each of these brain chemicals do for us as well as how the brain works normally. For instance, the human brain is made up of brain cells called neurons. In between each neuron is a space, called the synapse.

Each neuron can send and receive messages about how we feel, what we’re thinking, and how we behave.

One neuron will release a chemical, called a neurotransmitter, into the synapse and an adjoining neuron will receive that chemical. Various neurons contain receptors and transporters. The receptor is the part of the neuron that receives the chemical messengers traveling through the synapse, and the transporter is the part of the neuron that recycles any excess chemical left in the synapse. The transporter is located on the same neuron that released the message to begin with.

Dopamine: The “Feel Good” Neurotransmitter”

Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter related to both drug addiction and gambling. Dopamine has two characteristics that are related to addiction in general.

First, it’s a “feel good” chemical associated with rewards. Imagine you are stranded on a desert island and you haven’t had any fresh water for hours or even days. You go in search of water and discover that a fresh water source is located directly north of the signal fire you’ve lit on the beach. You experience a rush of joy and elation when you find the spring. This feeling of euphoria is due to the dopamine that has been released in your brain.

Secondly, it plays a part in learning. When you find the water source, you commit the location of this life-giving source of water to your memory. Dopamine does more than make us feel wonderful; it helps us learn what makes us feel that way. Certain drugs can increase the production of natural dopamine, mimic the chemical itself, or block the ability of the transporters in the brain to recycle the dopamine floating in the synapse.

When someone uses a drug that affects dopamine levels, the person will both feel better and then learn what activity or substance created the euphoria.2

An individual who experiences that rush from winning even a small jackpot during the course of gambling learns that pulling the lever or pressing the button on a slot machine has the ability to make them feel great.

Gambling Addiction Treatment is Similar to Drug Addiction Treatment

If the behaviors associated with addiction are learned, is it possible to unlearn them? According to the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists, it is not only possible, but it is effective. Cognitive function, which refers to one’s ability to think, and our behaviors are connected to what we think.

The basic premise for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) addresses the link between our perceptions of the world around us and how we translate that into our actions.

The people and circumstances of our lives have less control over how we behave than we think they do.


For instance, an individual who sees a slot machine and associates the slot machine with the good feeling of winning may blame the presence of that slot machine for their problem. Perhaps, if they thought of that machine in a different way, they would not be as anxious to gamble.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has been used in the treatment of drug addiction to achieve a similar goal: change the association, change the thinking, and practice those new thought patterns until the behavior fully changes.

By helping an individual learn that the drugs or the gambling behaviors do not actually improve life or emotions, and by helping that individual address the issues that have caused the feelings of unworthiness, this person unlearns the association between addictive behavior and self-worth.

Other Benefits of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for Gambling and Substance Abuse:

  • CBT is a short-term method that involves active participation, homework assignments, and goal setting.
  • CBT allows the individual to determine their own course of actions to improve the quality of their life. The therapist helps them learn how to feel better without telling them how to feel.
  • CBT shows an individual how to operate from a position of knowledge and fact, rather than making assumptions about the world around them.
  • CBT develops an equal partnership between therapist and patient, or both parties work in tandem to reach goals.3

How to Get Help for Gambling Addiction

If you or someone you love suffers from a gambling addiction, it is important to get help as soon as possible. Gambling addiction can have serious consequences on your life, your finances, your relationships, and your happiness.

Feel free to contact us at 269.280.4673 to find out more about how our treatment methods and dedication to gambling recovery can help you.

1New York State. Warning Signs of Problem Gambling. Nd. Accessed 26 November 2018.
2Volkow N., et. al. Dopamine in drug abuse and addiction: results of imaging studies and treatment implications. Arch Neurology. Nov 2007.
3National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists. What is Cognitive Behavior Therapy? 2018.