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How 'Feel Good Chemicals' Make Gambling Addiction As Harmful As Substance Abuse

By Jennifer Mitchell
Medically Reviewed by Arpan Parikh, MD, MBA on August 02, 2021
Gambling is a popular pastime, but it can become an addiction. Here's why it's so harmful.

An estimated 2 million U.S. adults have severe gambling problems, the National Council on Problem Gambling says. Many people are able to gamble responsibly. But for some, gambling can become a serious problem.

The role of ‘feel good chemicals’ in gambling addiction

Enjoyable activities, such as eating your favorite dessert, “provide [you] with a pleasurable dopamine reward,” says Dr. Jennifer Love, a psychiatrist and addiction medicine specialist. She says skydiving and other activities that give you a ‘rush’ also flood your brain with dopamine. This ‘feel good chemical’ plays a big role in addictions.

“Chemicals such as cocaine, and certain behaviors, such as gambling, provide the brain with a rush of dopamine far greater,” than the rush you get from common activities, Love says. These ‘feel good chemicals’ encourage you to keep gambling. But once you’re addicted, she says your brain starts producing less of these chemicals. “People gamble more and more in hopes of attaining the feeling of that first rush again,” she says.

Gambling addiction is as harmful as other addictions

“Gambling addiction is very serious, and even deadly,” says Lin Sternlicht, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. “Among all forms of addictions, gamblers have the highest rates of suicide,” she says. That’s because of the serious effect a gambling addiction can have on a person’s finances.

Gambling addictions can have major consequences for relationships, too. Sternlicht says people with this addiction may lie to their loved ones about their gambling. They may also resort to stealing to support their gambling addiction. “This loss of trust is often extremely challenging to rebuild,” she says.

Treatment is available for gambling addiction

Like drug and alcohol addictions, gambling addiction can be treated. People with gambling addiction may benefit from individual or group therapy. Through therapy, they can learn how to manage problems without turning to gambling. Some people also benefit from support groups such as Gamblers Anonymous.

People with gambling addiction often have mental health conditions like depression or anxiety, Psychology Today says. Doctors may suggest psychotherapy or prescribe antidepressants or other medications to manage these conditions.

A gambling addiction can be just as harmful as substance misuse. If you’re concerned about your gambling, seek help as soon as possible.

Treatment & Resources for Gambling Addiction