Gambling can be a casual and fun pastime, but for some people it can become an addiction that's hard to break. If you think gambling might be a problem for you, it's important to understand your gambling triggers and find healthier ways to spend your time.
What Makes Gambling Addictive?
Many people place bets without realizing the risk of getting addicted. However, gambling is addictive because it stimulates the brain’s reward system in a similar way to drugs and alcohol.
Over time, a person can build up a tolerance to gambling, meaning they have to place higher bets in order to feel the same effects as when they first started. Eventually, the outcome of winning or losing becomes irrelevant, and the gambler becomes hooked on the sheer act of placing a bet.
If the gambler loses a significant amount of money, they often try to win the money back, which only results in furthering their addiction.
How Gambling Affects the Brain
Compulsive gambling shows signs of significant changes in your brain chemistry - specifically alterations in the levels of serotonin and dopamine. When we gamble, the brain produces higher levels of dopamine, and ordinary activities suddenly seem extremely mundane in comparison.
When the brain is subjected to frequent overstimulation, it tries to overcompensate by reducing the number of dopamine receptors, meaning that less dopamine goes through the brain. This is why many people feel that they need to gamble in order to feel “normal” - because their natural dopamine levels have been depleted.
Once you stop gambling permanently, the brain will eventually correct itself, but prolonged gambling can cause the brain to develop a stronger, longer-lasting resistance to the stimulant.
Recreational vs. Problem Gambling
Recreational gamblers gamble for fun and are able to control their spending. On the other hand, problem gamblers are those who start to gamble more than they can afford to lose, which often leads to financial and relational problems.
That being said, both types of gambling can lead to addiction if someone becomes hooked on the thrill of placing a bet. In that case, it becomes difficult for them to stop gambling despite ongoing losses as their brain gets used to getting rewarded in this way.
The Danger of Replacing One Addiction With Another
When you try to remove gambling from your life, you will inevitably look for something else to fill that void and provide you with a rush of dopamine. This could be a substance like alcohol or a type of drug, or it could be sex or coffee. Individuals in recovery may also experience a lowered level of dopamine in the brain, which can make it difficult to quit gambling and leave that dopamine behind.
The only true way to ensure a person doesn’t replace one addiction with another is to address the underlying causes. This may involve seeking professional help in order to address any mental health issues, and treating any addiction issues that may be present.
Common Gambling Triggers
One of the most important things you can do when trying to overcome a gambling addiction is to be aware of your triggers.
Common triggers include:
- Boredom / Restlessness
This will help you identify the underlying issue that leads you to gamble, and address it. Once you have done that, you can start looking for alternatives to gambling that will help you address the problem in a healthy way.
5 Healthy Substitutions for Gambling
Quitting gambling can be a difficult process, but it is possible. There are healthy alternatives to gambling that will help you relax and relieve stress in a natural way.
1. Physical Activity
There are many different ways to stay physically active. When you exercise, your body releases natural endorphins and hormones that make you feel good. It can also be a great way to de-stress and relieve anxiety. One way to stay active is by joining a sports team - if you are competitive, this can be a great outlet for you that doesn’t involve betting.
Alternatively, try joining a gym, or taking up a sport like rock climbing, biking, or skiing. Create goals for yourself that you can work towards, such as lifting a certain amount or running a marathon.
2. Learn Something New
As much as your body needs to be active, your mind also needs to be stimulated. Master a certain subject, or learn something that you’re interested in to prevent boredom from setting in. The key is finding activities that appeal to you and engaging with them on a regular basis.
3. Have New Experiences
Gambling may feel exciting in the moment, but it keeps you so locked in on staring at a screen or machine that it actually keeps you from having new experiences. When your life is full of new experiences and opportunities, there's usually not as much temptation for you to gamble since it no longer seems like an optimal way to escape from what feels mundane or boring.
This could include traveling, trying a new restaurant, making a new friend, or exploring a new hike within your city.
If you tend to gamble as a way of relaxing and relieving stress, then meditation could be a good alternative for you. Meditation has been shown to help people reduce stress levels and anxiety, and it also allows you to clear your mind and center yourself, which can help prevent you from getting drawn into addictive gambling patterns.
When you feel the urge to gamble, acknowledge what you are feeling in the moment. Doing this allows you to process your thoughts and feelings in a rational manner, which may help you resist temptation in the future. In addition, journaling can also be therapeutic - it offers a safe place where you can express yourself freely without fear of judgment or consequences.
Get Help for Gambling Addiction
There are many alternatives to gambling that can help people get help for their gambling addiction. If you're feeling like gambling is taking over your life, seek professional help.
There are different methods of treatment available across the country. The first step may be attending a 12-step program like Gamblers Anonymous - either in person or virtually. This group provides support and resources to people who want to quit gambling, as well as information and tools on how to live a healthy gambling lifestyle.
Outpatient counseling can also be helpful in addressing the underlying issues that may be fueling your gambling addiction. It can help you learn how to deal with your emotions, control your urges, and build healthy coping mechanisms.
Attending a gambling-specific residential treatment center is the most effective way of fighting a gambling addiction. Here, you'll receive intensive individualized treatment and counseling that will help you rebuild your life away from gambling.
If you are experiencing problems with gambling, it is important to seek help. Gambling addiction is a disease that needs to be treated with a sense of urgency. For additional resources about gambling addiction and recovery, visit our gambling addiction blog. For support, reach out to our gambling counselors, or leave us a comment below.