Gambling involves risking something of value, such as money or property, on an event that is determined by chance. The goal is to win a prize, which may be anything from a small amount of money to a life-changing jackpot. There are many types of gambling, including slot machines, table games, horse races, and lottery drawings. The amount of money legally wagered each year on these events is approximately $10 trillion. In addition, sports teams and other professional organizations organize betting pools on a variety of events. Whether online or in brick-and-mortar casinos, people gamble for various reasons. For some, the thrill of winning big money is the primary motivator. Others use gambling to alleviate stress or to socialize with friends. Regardless of the motive, gambling activates the reward center in the brain, which causes feelings of pleasure. As such, it is addictive.
Some people have difficulty controlling their gambling behavior and develop a gambling disorder, or compulsive gambling. Typical symptoms include a preoccupation with gambling; frequent, unsuccessful attempts to control gambling; lying to family members, therapists, or employers to conceal the extent of one’s involvement in gambling; attempting to regain losses through continued gambling (“chasing” losses); and jeopardizing or losing significant relationships, job, or educational opportunities because of gambling (American Psychiatric Association 2000). Unlike other addictions, there are no FDA-approved medications to treat gambling disorders. However, counseling can help people understand their urge to gamble and think about other ways they can get the rewards they seek. Counseling can also address coexisting mood disorders, which often trigger or make worse gambling problems.
Behavioral treatments are the most effective way to treat a gambling problem. These techniques include cognitive behavioural therapy, which helps people change the way they think about betting and how they feel when they want to gamble. Specifically, CBT looks at a person’s beliefs about gambling—for example, the belief that certain rituals can bring luck or that they can recover from a loss by betting more.
Aside from counseling, it is important to strengthen a person’s support network and find other activities that can provide rewards. It is particularly difficult for young people to cope with a loved one’s gambling problems. It is also helpful to find a peer support group, such as Gamblers Anonymous, which is based on the 12-step model used by Alcoholics Anonymous. This type of support can help a person remain free from gambling behaviors by allowing him or her to learn from the experiences of other participants. In addition, some peer-supported recovery programs encourage the participant to find a sponsor, a former gambler who has successfully overcome their gambling addiction.