Pathological Gambling

Gambling is widely practiced as a recreational activity around the world, involving wagering something of value on a random event. It is usually undertaken for fun or as a way to socialize with friends and family, but can also be an addictive activity in which a person becomes obsessed, leading to severe financial and interpersonal problems. The widespread popularity of gambling makes it a unique behavioral phenomenon for study, in particular as it provides insight into the role of cognition and emotion in decision-making. It can also provide insights into how a normal, recreational behaviour can become pathological.

While the vast majority of people who gamble do so responsibly, there is a small percentage that develops a disorder known as pathological gambling (PG). PG is characterized by persistent and recurrent patterns of maladaptive behaviors related to gambling. It often begins in adolescence or early adulthood, and most PGs report experiencing their first symptoms in the late teen years. The incidence of PG is estimated to be between 0.4-1.6% of the population, and a greater proportion of men than women are affected by it.

Although gambling is commonly regarded as an isolated behaviour, it is actually a complex cognitive process that requires the interplay of several neurotransmitters and regions of the brain. Two dominant approaches to the study of gambling have emerged in recent years, each with a distinct research literature: the cognitive approach emphasizes the content and distorted appraisal of control during a gambling episode; the psychobiological approach examines case-control differences between pathological gamblers and healthy controls and has identified dysregulation of brain areas involved in reward and emotion (including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex [vmPFC] and the striatum]) as well as changes in dopamine neurotransmission.

The cognitive approach argues that erroneous beliefs about the odds of winning are maintained by cognitive distortions and the perception of a positive expected value, when in fact this is not true. Moreover, the act of gambling itself triggers a tense battle of the nerves that increases heart rate and blood pressure, disrupts normal hormone secretion, and causes a loss of appetite. This state is believed to help a gambler focus and make better decisions, even though it has been shown that the accuracy of those decisions is diminished.

In addition, a person who is suffering from a mood disorder such as depression, anxiety, or stress may be attracted to gambling because it offers an escape from these symptoms and a way to cope with unpleasant feelings. Seeking therapy for these underlying disorders is therefore recommended to prevent and treat gambling-related problems. Other helpful techniques include practicing relaxation, exercising, spending time with non-gambling friends, and learning how to manage stress and boredom in healthier ways. A few other tips are to never gamble with money that you cannot afford to lose, set time and money limits for yourself when gambling, and avoid chasing your losses (trying to make up for losses by betting more). Also be sure to seek professional treatment if you have lost significant amounts of money, jeopardized relationships or job opportunities, or are lying to others about how much you are spending on gambling.