Gambling is an activity in which people place bets on the outcome of events with uncertain results. People may gamble in casinos, lotteries, horse races, sports games, or online. Gambling is a recreational activity for some, but others develop serious gambling problems. Problem gambling causes distress and can interfere with daily life activities, such as work, school, or relationships. It can also lead to financial difficulties and substance abuse. People who have gambling problems may be hesitant to seek help, even when they are aware of the negative effects on their lives and families.
Gamblers bet with money or other valuable possessions on the outcome of an event involving chance and/or future contingent events that are not under their control. Historically, the term “gambling” has included wagering on illegal or dishonest games and was associated with deception and criminal activities, such as sharping (French for cheating at play) and being a rook (French for fraudulent gamester). However, in modern times, the word has come to mean the act of wagering something of value upon an event that involves a combination of chance and skill, and has no legal status under common law.
People who gamble for coping reasons do so because they believe that the odds of winning are better than those of losing. This belief is based on the illusion that past experiences and outcomes influence future probabilities, known as the gambler’s fallacy. This illusion is often reinforced by the way betting companies promote their products, such as by wall-to-wall advertising for Coke and sponsorship of football teams.
When a person gambles, their brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes them feel good. This feeling is heightened when they win, but it is present during losses as well. This neural response to uncertainty likely reinforces the attraction of gambling and helps explain why so many people struggle with addiction.
There are a variety of strategies for treating gambling disorders. Counseling is helpful for understanding and addressing the emotional issues that underlie problematic behavior, including depression and anxiety. Treatment options include individual, group and family counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and specialized programs such as the 12 step program for gambling disorder.
Medications are not recommended for treating gambling disorders, but certain medications can help treat co-occurring conditions, such as depression or anxiety. In addition, there are a number of effective interventions for changing a person’s gambling habits, such as motivational enhancement and abstaining from gambling environments.
It is important to recognize that a person’s gambling habits are often rooted in the need to self-soothe unpleasant feelings and relieve boredom. In order to break the cycle, it is important to find healthy ways to relieve these feelings, such as by spending time with friends who don’t gamble, enrolling in a class, or taking up a new hobby. It is also helpful to seek support from a peer group, such as Gamblers Anonymous. This 12-step recovery program, modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, has been shown to be successful in helping people stop gambling.