Gambling addiction (also known as problem gambling or ludomania) is an overwhelming urge to gamble in spite of the negative consequences of a sincere desire to stop. It’s estimated that around six percent of people will experience a gambling problem during their lifetime. But why do we gamble?

Gambling can be exciting and as such releases a high level of adrenaline, which can lead to addiction. Similarly, the competitive element in trying to beat other players or the house and the thrill gained from placing high bets can cause the same response. Gambling can also be used as an easy solution to financial worries or maybe an escape from stress. While most people will gamble every so often, whether it be buying a lottery ticket or playing bingo it is not usually a way of life.

For compulsive gamblers, gambling is a life-wrecking addiction which affects them and those close to them. Although it’s hard to identify problem gambling it’s likely you are a compulsive gambler if you experience certain symptoms. You may experience frequent thoughts about gambling and past gambling experiences and, if you don’t gamble for a while, you may begin to feel restless or irritable. You may see gambling as a way to escape stress and problems or use it to improve your mood when you feel down. If you are lying to your friends and family, performing illegal acts to supplement your gambling or are unable to stop despite a desire to do so, then you may be a problem gambler. But what causes compulsive gambling?

Compulsive gambling stems from biological, psychological and social problems. Gambling can be an escape, allowing you to put aside the everyday problems you’re experiencing. When you gamble you’re concentrating on the excitement of the race (or sport) and the bet you’ve placed. It can consume all your attention and as such allow you to temporarily escape your daily life.

Gambling can also bring about a sense of community by bringing you into contact with others. Social acceptance is important to everyone and for a compulsive gambler, this can be found in casinos, bookmakers and virtual gaming sites.

Compulsive gambling is similar to chemical addiction. And research has shown that compulsive gamblers have a lower level of norepinephrine than regular gamblers. This hormone is produced when under stress or when thrilled and it’s thought that compulsive gamblers have to make up for their low levels. Also, deficiencies in serotonin can also contribute to compulsive behaviour such as gambling addiction. Prolonged compulsive gambling can act on the brain’s dopamine reward system, changing the chemistry and structure of cells. This can mean that you will become unresponsive to normal rewards such as sex, food or social interaction and will increase your reliance on gambling.

The usual treatments for compulsive gambling involve a combination of counselling, peer support and/or step-based programs. Cognitive behavioural therapy can reduce the symptoms of problem gambling and related urges. The goal of this treatment is to help the sufferer unlearn the faulty behaviours which lead them into compulsive gambling. Research has shown that paroxetine can be effective in treating problem gambling as can sustained release of lithium. One example of a step-based support group is Gamblers Anonymous. This group adopts the 12 step program used by Alcoholics Anonymous and is geared around peer-support. In addition, there are also several professionally-run self-help programs available to those suffering from compulsive gambling.