What Causes Gambling Addiction?

Man holding dice at craps table, close-up
Someone about to roll the dice in a game of craps. (Image: John Howard/DigitalVision/Getty Images)

Gambling addiction is the compulsive act of gambling without regard for financial, family- or work-related consequences. Gambling addicts may become excessively preoccupied with the act of gambling itself and not necessarily with winning or losing. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, around 2 million Americans meet the criteria for pathological gambling addiction, and another 5 million qualify as problem gamblers. Several factors contribute to the theoretical causes of this debilitating disease.

Impulse Control

The American Psychiatric Association formally classifies pathological gambling as an impulse control disorder. More specifically, gambling addiction may be caused by a mental health condition known as obsessive-compulsive disorder. The obsessive part of the condition refers to a person thinking obsessively about a single subject; in this case, gambling. The compulsive part of the disease refers the the person acting out his obsessions in order to alleviate stress and anxiety. One of the primary concepts regarding impulse control disorders like gambling is a lack of emotional regulation. Harvard Health Publications states that when gambling addicts refrain from gambling, they experience restlessness and irritability, which are classic symptoms of withdrawal.

Genetic Factors

Gambling addiction may affect some people due to a genetic predisposition toward addictive behaviors. The Mayo Clinic reports that winning and losing triggers dopamine in the brain and rewards a person in the same way as food and sex. In addition, Dr. Theodor Rais at New York University states that compulsive gambling can be inherited from one or both parents, and that gambling affects the same reward centers in the brain as drugs like methamphetamines. Dr. Rais also states that there are serious risk factors that may predispose someone toward gambling. These include being male, having a family history of gambling, mood and personality disorders, and substance abuse.

Daily Escape and Past Trauma

Some gambling addicts may simply gamble as an escape from the outside world. Addiction in general is considered a pathological coping mechanism used for escaping from current or past problems. In the March 2007 issue of "Psychology and Psychotherapy," Dr. Richard Wood and associates reported that gambling to escape from life's problems was the strongest predictor in gambling addiction and relapse. In addition to escaping from daily problems, gambling addicts may also gamble as a coping mechanism for past trauma. Gambling, like other addictions, is considered a pathology in part because of a need for absolute control. Experiencing childhood trauma can inflict serious psychological damage on a person and may lead to cognitive distortions and other pathologies later in life. In the January 2007 issue of "The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease," Dr. Jeffrey Scherrer and associates found that past childhood traumas were a strong significant predictor of adult gambling addiction. These childhood traumas included abuse, neglect, witnessing someone else getting badly hurt and being personally attacked.

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