Gambling and the Brain

Dopamine is neurotransmitter in the brain that plays a vital role in a variety of different behaviours including movement, cognition, pleasure, and motivation. When dopamine is released it gives us a feeling of pleasure or satisfaction for which we develop a basic desire. To satisfy this desire, many of us will repeat behaviours that cause the release of dopamine. Eating food releases dopamine, for example, which is why people want food even though their body does not need it. This makes some sense scientifically as the body needs food to survive.

To many people, the fact that someone can become addicted to gambling makes very little sense at all, even to the addicts themselves. However, gambling can have the same effect on dopamine levels as food, and at times can be even more powerful. Because the result is based on chance, a gambler doesn't know prior to the outcome of a bet if he or she will win. If a gambler does win, dopamine levels increase and the search to repeat this feeling can become highly addictive.

There is no firm scientific evidence to explain why some individuals develop a compulsive urge to gamble to try to achieve this hit of dopamine time and time again. In the same way, there is no exact understanding of why many other people can gamble in a healthy and responsible way and don't experience the sometimes life destroying consequences that come from a desperation to return to the bookmakers or the fruit machine or the online casinos that have become a seemingly unavoidable presence in modern life.

The Development of a Gambling Addiction

Just because someone chooses to gamble does not mean they will become a compulsive gambler and of the many sportsmen and women who have turned to Sporting Chance for help with a gambling addiction since our creation over 15 years ago, none became compulsive gamblers the first time they placed a bet. A gambling addiction develops over time and is generally considered to consist of three distinct phases. The progression through these stages of gambling will vary depending on the personality type of the individual and the kind of gambling that they engage in. It has been found that people who play instant gratification games such as slot machines will experience these three stages faster than other gamblers.

The first of these stages is winning. This stage sometimes lasts a day or two, or it may last longer depending on a gambler's initial luck. During this stage, they might start to feel confident about gambling or that they have a system which will ensure they win irrespective of the odds. This erroneous logic can lead to those in the early throes of a gambling addiction to place larger and larger bets.

The second stage of gambling is characterised by losing when reality hits and the law of averages takes hold. Gamblers begin to feel a 'high' less and less frequently, until they rarely experience it at all. Gambling alone, hiding gambling habits from friends and family and borrowing or stealing money to pay for the habit can become part of everyday life.

Desperation is the third and most serious stage when gamblers will increase the amount of time and money they spend on gambling with increasingly negative consequences - serious debt problems, divorce or separation and loss of employment might follow, part of a dangerous cycle from which it might feel there is no hope of escape. It is in this phase that some compulsive gamblers will resort to desperate measures to fix their problems including illegal acts or even attempting suicide.

How Gambling Can Affect the Sportsperson…

Anyone can develop an addiction irrespective of their social position, the job they do or the amount of money they have in the bank and every addict will ultimately experience consequences. Money worries frequently play a large part in the life of any gambling addict and this is not necessarily any different just because that addict is a professional sportsperson. Higher levels of stress and anxiety may occur if that professional has increasing debts or is receiving pressure from those with knowledge of their situation who might attempt to bribe them. However, the consequences of gambling addiction are far wider reaching than the purely financial. It is often surprising to people, but those who develop gambling problems experience very similar effects on their physical wellbeing as those addicted to alcohol or drugs. The problem gambler can suffer from of a lack of quality sleep, loss of appetite, dehydration and poor nutritional intake and diet. As this in turn affects concentration levels, physical strength, endurance and performance, it can have a hugely damaging effect on the life of a professional sportsperson in a relatively short space of time.

…And Those Around Them

While compulsive gamblers need the support of their family and friends to stop gambling, it's common for loved ones to have conflicting emotions. They may have tried to cover up for the gambler or spent a lot of time trying to keep him or her from gambling. At the same time, they might be furious at the gambler for his or her inability to stop and tired of trying to keep up the charade. The gambler may have borrowed (or even stolen) money from them with no way to pay it back. He or she may have sold family possessions or run up huge debts on joint credit cards. Many family members of gambling addicts have found it important not to go through this process alone. Reaching out for support, including attending a self-help group for families such as Gam-Anon can make loved ones realise that there are many other families out there that have struggled with this problem and come through the other side.

When an addicted gambler makes the decision to ask for help, they will benefit greatly from a supportive network of family and friends who understand the need for their treatment despite the time it may involve. However, as hard as it is to witness the consequences of gambling first hand, the decision can only be made by the individual with the problem and no one can make this for them. If they want to stop and stop for good, there are numerous organisations on hand to help to get them well. If they are a professional or former professional sportsperson, we would encourage them to call the number below. Sporting Chance offers entirely confidential support which is free to anyone who is or has ever been a member of the PFA and we have agreements in place with a number of other sports which could partially or wholly fund any treatment.

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