Gambling addiction: an underestimated danger

22. February 2021

The danger of pathological gambling addiction – or gambling addiction for short – is often underestimated. But those affected by this addiction lose more than just money. In the long term, the addiction destroys livelihoods and fuels internal and external conflicts. Not infrequently, the addiction leads to complete isolation. Thus, pathological gambling is a psychological disease whose consequences are disastrous for the lives of many people. The official figures speak of about 200,000 gambling addicts in Germany. However, an enormous number of unreported cases must be assumed (Erbas & Buchner, 2012).

Worth knowing about gambling addiction

If you think of gambling addiction in terms of classic games of chance such as roulette or poker in a glamorous casino, you are wrong in most cases. Nowadays, it is rather the addiction to gambling machines, online gambling or sports betting that people fall ill with. These types of gambling are particularly easy to access and thus have a high risk of addiction.

Excursus: Gambling addiction is one of the behavioral addictions. These seem less scary compared to substance-related addictions, such as drug or alcohol addiction. This is partly because behavioral addictions are not nearly as prominent in the media, research and prevention as substance addictions.

Gambling machines: gambling addiction is the target

The flashing, colorful, and noisy machines are attractive, seductive, and promise quick wins. Winnings and losses take place in absurdly rapid succession, so that the rational mind can hardly keep up. Gamblers find themselves in a gambling frenzy and in this tunnel do not notice at all how time passes and money dwindles. Fatally, wins stay better in the memory and trigger the reward center. The feel-good sensation of winning, the thrill, the rush, the distraction: these are the feelings gamblers want to experience again and again. The vicious circle of addiction has begun.

Characteristics of gambling addiction

A gambling addiction is an addiction in disguise. Unlike substance-related addictions such as drug or alcohol addiction, those affected can often keep their gambling addiction a secret for a long time. Nonetheless, everyday life is permeated by the gambling addiction. The ongoing hunt for the feeling of happiness of winning is not without consequences:

  • Lies and cover-ups are the order of the day: time spent in the gambling hall or sports betting studio must be scheduled and, in most cases, concealed from those around them.
  • Money problems increase over time: the gambling addiction must be financed. After the own savings are used up, the money reserves of relatives or the employer are tapped secretly. Over time, dubious loans, garnishments or even procurement crime is then resorted to.
  • The inner conflict is grueling: gambling addicts know, of course, that their addiction takes on destructive proportions and suffer from conflicts of conscience. Nevertheless, the addiction to the feeling of reward and relaxation is usually stronger. The danger is often not seen for a long time, many do not want to admit having lost control. Loss and gain phases are inwardly talked down or exaggerated. Many believe to be able to control the slot machine or the betting system at the end nevertheless.
  • The arcade or the betting office are increasingly perceived as a place of refuge from reality. To this, the gambling industry contributes quite a bit: The arcades are often darkened, very quiet and seemingly intimate. Gamblers receive a very friendly welcome and are provided with food and drink. There are deliberately no clocks or time limits.
  • The environment suffers along. Sooner or later, the bomb bursts and not infrequently destroys the complete existence. Frequently, co-dependency also occurs, which means that relatives indirectly support the addiction by lending money, paying off debts or supporting the web of lies. This well-intentioned help not infrequently ensures that the addiction continues.

But how does gambling addiction occur in the first place? In addition to the sophisticated marketing strategies of the gambling industry, psychological mechanisms also play a role here.

Excursus: People are differently susceptible to the risk of gambling addiction. This is related to personality traits, brain structure and self-control ability, among other things. Thus, people who seek excitement and tension (also called “sensation seeking”) are particularly susceptible to the rapid succession of stimuli in gambling machines..

Psychological origins of gambling addiction

On one hand, gambling (apparently) serves to solve problems: gambling leads to relaxation and helps to suppress inner conflicts. Many gambling addicts have not learned to deal constructively with their own problems and therefore resort to a so-called dysfunctional solution strategy, in this case addiction. Second, complex learning and reinforcement mechanisms play an important role. One of these mechanisms is that the brain experiences feelings of reward and happiness at irregular intervals when winning (intermittent reinforcement). Gambling behavior, i.e., playing the machines or betting, is thus shown more and more often because it promises this feeling.

Excursus: Addictions dull the brain. That is, addicts become less and less receptive to other, naturally generated feelings of happiness. Moreover, they need more and more of their addictive substance in the sense of a development of tolerance.

The way out of gambling addiction

Gambling addiction, like all other addictions, is treatable. To do so, it requires professional support in the form of outpatient or inpatient psychotherapy. The therapy aims at gambling abstinence, i.e. a gambling-free life. To achieve this, deep-seated problems and inner conflicts must be recognized and worked on. New coping strategies for stress and emotional pressure are learned that provide an alternative to gambling. Gambling addicts also create an emergency kit with methods and strategies that they can use when gambling pressure arises. Natural feelings of happiness, also known as “natural highs,” are to be experienced again in therapy and firmly established in everyday life.

Unfortunately, gambling addiction and its treatment are still associated with taboo and stigmatization. Professional help is the milestone on the way back to a gambling-free, self-determined life!

References

(1) Meyer, G., & Bachmann, M. (2017). Gambling addiction: Causes, treatment, and prevention of gambling-related addictive behavior. Springer-Verlag

(2) Erbas, B., & Buchner, U. G. (2012). Pathological gambling. Deutsches Aerzteblatt International, 109(10).

Friederike Reuver
Autor:in Friederike Reuver
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