Gambling addiction is a behavioural addiction with potentially serious consequences. Behavioural addictions differ from chemical addictions (i.e., dependence on a chemical such as alcohol) in that they stem from repeated exposure to a behaviour such as gambling or exercising, rather than a chemical compound. Nevertheless, certain types of behaviours can overactivate a part of the brain (called the mesolimbic dopamine system) that is responsible for producing feelings of pleasure. Because the brain adapts to environmental changes, repeated exposure to a behaviour that activates the brain's pleasure centre can result in the brain requiring regular contact with that behaviour in order to regulate itself. This is the resultant addiction. Unfortunately, this modification can also result in anhedonia, a condition where other types of pleasure are no longer registered by the dependent individual.
Typically, a person should be concerned about the possibility of gambling addiction if:
1) He or she has an ongoing compulsion to gamble that is difficult to resist
2) His or her gambling is or has resulted in problems (including but not limited to financial) in his or her life or the lives of loved ones
3) The gambling is getting in the way of other important life domains, such as work or health
4) The individual experiences withdrawal (such as mood swings, irritability, and irrational thinking (e.g., “I have to gamble”)) when gambling is unavailable
The situation becomes more complex in humans, because we have a tendency to rationalise any behaviour that we feel is right. So in gambling addiction, many individuals feel required to justify their behaviour, even if they see it doing harm to themselves and those they care for. It's important to understand that although the individual can do something about this behaviour, he or she isn't necessarily to blame.
It's seldom helpful to confront an individual who has become dependent on gambling - because we justify our behaviours it can simply help to reinforce his or her existing rationalisations. Instead, it's better to encourage them to come up with reasons why their behaviour isn't necessarily ideal - this might be enough to get them to see their GP.
The good news is that any brain adaptations as a result of repeated exposure to gambling can be corrected. It's essential, therefore, that anyone concerned about the possibility of gambling addiction should see their GP and ask for a mental health care plan (MHCP) to see a psychologist trained in the treatment of addiction. An MHCP entitles patients to a substantial Medicare rebate on visits to a registered psychologist.
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