How Does Gambling Affect the Brain?


A game of chance where something of value is risked for the hope of winning another item of value. Gambling is considered to be an addiction when it disrupts your life, including relationships, work or study. It can also impact on health, leave you in debt and even lead to homelessness. It is often linked to depression and suicidal thoughts.

People gamble for many reasons – the adrenaline rush of winning, socialising or escaping worries or stress. It can be an enjoyable pastime if you do it responsibly and in moderation, but for some it can become a problem. People who suffer from compulsive gambling can bet more than they can afford to lose, chase losses and become unable to control their urges. They can also hide their behaviour or commit crimes such as theft or fraud to fund their gambling habit.

The earliest evidence of gambling is thought to be clay tiles unearthed in ancient China, used for a rudimentary form of lottery-type game. In modern times, the game has expanded to include horse racing, football accumulators and other betting events, as well as online casino games and scratchcards. It can also involve speculating on business, insurance or stock markets.

How does gambling affect the brain?

When you gamble, your brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel excited. This is the same response you would have to a drug such as cocaine or heroin, but it’s important to remember that not everyone who gambles becomes addicted. Some people use it as a coping mechanism, to forget their worries or to help them feel more self-confident. They may also be influenced by other factors such as alcohol or drugs, which can make the urge to gamble worse.

If you have a gambling problem, it’s important to seek help as soon as possible. There are many treatments available, such as cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT), which teaches you to resist unwanted thoughts and habits. It can also help you confront irrational beliefs such as the belief that you are due for a big win, or that your last loss was just a fluke.

If you’re tempted to gamble, try to only bet with money that you can afford to lose and never chase your losses. Never think that you will get lucky and recoup your lost money – it’s called the gambler’s fallacy, and it’s rarely true! If you can’t stop thinking about gambling, try talking to a friend who doesn’t gamble or trying other ways to relax and unwind. For financial advice, visit StepChange or call their free debt helpline on 0808 123 1033. You can also strengthen your support network by joining a gym or sports team, taking up a hobby and volunteering for a charity. You can also sign up to a peer support group such as Gamblers Anonymous, which follows a 12-step recovery program similar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous. You can also seek treatment at an inpatient or residential rehabilitation programme if you have severe problems with gambling.