Gambling Addiction and Substance Abuse

In 48 of the 50 states, a player can walk into a casino and plop down money on a game of chance. Dice, cards, wheels, machines and more are all put to good use here, creating the illusion that money can be easily won and that luck is right around the corner. And sometimes, it’s seen as just plain fun. According to an article in Scientific American, four in five Americans have engaged in this activity at least once in their lives. Numbers like this seem to suggest that gambling is an accepted form of recreation in this country.

The Internet makes gambling even easier. Games like Kitty Glitter (in England) allow people to spend money online in games of chance, and those games can be remarkably enticing for people who feel as though their lives are at loose ends. A woman profiled by the Daily Mail, for example, started playing Kitty Bingo after she lost her job. She wanted to make money, and she became convinced that she could win in this seemingly harmless game. Unfortunately, she lost thousands of dollars instead.

From Recreation to Addiction

When gambling moves from recreation to addiction, the financial and emotional damage can be severe. But some people do yet more damage by blending an addiction to games of chance with an addiction to a substance, including alcohol and street drugs.

Understanding Compulsive Gambling

When people place a bet, either in person or online, the brain anticipates a monetary reward. The person might easily lose, of course, but if even a small win takes place, the brain releases a small amount of a chemical signal associated with pleasure. This dopamine boost can be augmented if the win is big, and sometimes the brain can become somewhat dependent on that little signal of pleasure. In time, the brain cells involved in the pleasure pathway might be unable to function properly unless the person is gambling. This is an addiction, and it’s serious.
People who compulsively gamble show these symptoms:

  • Having a preoccupation with gambling. They might gamble first thing in the morning, or they might walk away from work in order to gamble.
  • Gambling to alleviate emotional distress. They may experience an emotional shock, a feeling of sadness, or even feelings of guilt might all prompt gambling episodes.
  • Being unable to quit. Even if these people don’t want to gamble, they might be unable to make that resolution stick.
  • Borrowing or stealing. A gambling habit can be expensive, and some people must resort to deceit or thievery in order to cover their debts.

It’s easy to see how a compulsion like this could lead to financial devastation for a family. But some people augment the despair by adding drugs and alcohol into the mix.

Drinking, Drugging and Gambling

Casinos tend to be relaxed, permissive spaces in which all sorts of behaviors are tolerated. Gamblers can order drinks, and sometimes they can even receive alcoholic beverages at no cost, as long as they continue to gamble. Drug dealers might also find it easy to sell their products in bathrooms, hallways and other public spaces.

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At-home users might not have access to this kind of permissiveness, but they might still find it easy enough to stroll into the kitchen for a cocktail, or they might head into the bathroom and grab a bottle of pills from the shelves. Since home gambling tends to be a solo activity, people who engage in it might not have a peer that reminds them to stop using or slow down the use. They might use to excess as a result.

People can blend gambling and substance abuse at almost any point in their lives, but a study of users published in ISRN Addiction suggests that both disorders tend to develop during early adulthood. This makes sense, as this is a time in which the brain is underdeveloped. Portions of the brain that control impulsive tendencies and planning tend to be small and poorly connected during this point in life, and that might make it all too easy for users to start either one habit or both. Their brain cells don’t tell them to stop, so they simply don’t.

In some cases, the development of both disorders comes about due to proximity. It’s easy to access substances while gambling, so the two types of problems become linked. But it’s also possible that brain chemistry plays a role in the development of these two very different types of behaviors.

Researchers know that people who tend to drink or abuse drugs have a low level of activity in the reward centers of the brain. They need the kick that drugs can bring in order to correct a chemical deficiency inside their brain cells. If gambling can provide this same kind of boost, it’s reasonable to suggest that people who have this deficiency might be drawn to gambling, just as they might be drawn to drinking or drugging. The deficiency is to blame, and gambling and using provides a solution to that deficiency.

While it’s unclear just why the two problems go together, and which problem comes first, it is clear that people who gamble tend to have more substance problems than people that don’t gamble. That’s the finding of a study published in the journal 143-150.pdf” target=”_blank”>Alcohol Research and Health, and it just makes sense. Unfortunately, breaking that connection can be quite difficult.

Why Can’t They Stop?

Casino administrators are aware that people tend to use intoxicants while they gamble, and they also seem aware of the fact that people spend more while they’re under the influence. According to an analysis in the Wall Street Journal, Nevada laws require casino owners to stop the play if the player seems impaired, and fines can be levied if the owners don’t comply. Unfortunately, no such fines have been levied, and people who have tried to avoid their debts by citing this law tend to lose in court. It’s clear that leaning on the laws won’t help people to overcome an addiction.

Similarly, a study in the Journal of Gambling Studies suggests that people who have a gambling addiction rarely enter treatment programs because they don’t know about the treatment options available to them, and/or they’re worried about how treatment might work. They might continue to gamble and use substances, simply because they don’t know about the solutions they could tap into.

It’s also important to remember that these are diseases of chemistry, not willpower. People who abuse substances and gamble have done a profound amount of damage to the portions of the brain that control reward and pleasure. They may not be able to make certain types of pleasurable signals without the use of chemicals, and they may need intense amounts of these chemicals to simply feel normal. They can’t just shut these processes off without help. They need the assistance that a treatment program can provide.

Help Is Available

In time, they may find that they simply don’t need the effects of drugs in order to heal. Instead, they can lean on their own strength and newfound skills in order to stay away from the games and the drugs. Foundations Recovery Network treatment programs can play a key role in this kind of healing. Please call, and our admissions coordinators can help you to find a program that’s just right for you or for the person you love.

In a professional treatment program, people who have these dual disorders can:

  • Learn more about how their addictions develop
  • Heal in a place free of triggers
  • Develop strong abstinence skills
  • Discuss prior trauma
  • Resolve family conflicts

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