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By Evergreen Council on Problem Gambling

neuronIndividuals with gambling disorder often experience tolerance and withdrawal similar to those with substance dependence. Individuals build tolerance to gambling by betting more and more money to maintain a level of thrill, just as individuals build tolerance to alcohol and drugs by administering increasing doses of the substance to maintain a certain effect, be it a “high” or sedation. Individuals with gambling disorder also often experience irritability and anger when trying to cut back on or withdraw from gambling, and may experience loss of control with a strong urge to gamble—regardless of consequences.

A 2001 study concluded that parts of the brain that respond to the anticipation and experience of winning and losing while gambling are similar to the response from administering euphoria-inducing drugs—like cocaine and morphine.1 In 2002, researchers studying the medial frontal cortex—the part of the brain that processes reward and punishment—determined that choices made after a gambler lost were far more risky and irrational compared to choices made after winning. This behavior often resulted in more loss,2 such as chasing (or trying to win back) a lost bet.

While drugs, alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and many other objects can become addictive, contrary to traditional thinking, many within the medical and treatment community believe objects themselves are not the cause of addiction. Instead, the development of addiction to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or gambling comes from one’s mind, body, and experiences.3

This new way of looking at gambling addiction illustrates a few conclusive points:

  1. Someone does not have to partake of a substance to become addicted.
  2. Not everyone who partakes of an addictive substance or participates in addictive behavior develops disordered behavior (e.g., not everyone who gambles become addicted to gambling).
  3. Two people can partake in the same activity (underage gambling, for example), but the outcomes are different—one may have a gambling problem and the other may not—because ones’ mind, body, and experiences are unique.

Many people believe problem gambling is a moral weakness. In other words, individuals struggle with problem gambling because they lack willpower or personal control to stop. On the contrary, for many, gambling disorder requires treatment and is as serious as an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

If you or someone you love has a gambling problem, there’s hope. Help is available. Call the Washington State Problem Gambling Helpline at 1.800.547.6133.



1 Breiter, H., Aharon, I., Kahneman, D, Dale, A., & Shizgal, P. (2011, May). Functional imaging of neural responses to expectancy and experience of monetary gains and losses. Neuron, 30(2), 619–639. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627301003038

2 Gehring, W. J., & Willoughby, A. R. (2002, March). The medial frontal cortex and the rapid processing of monetary gains and losses. Science, 295(5563), 2279-2282. doi:10.1126/science.1066893

3 Sarah Nelson, PhD, Division of Addiction at Harvard Medical School