10 Things You Didn’t Know about Gambling, Hormones, and Moods

By Kory Walker
Published on July 29, 2016
Red Dice With Cards On a Table

Only an estimated 1% to 3% of the United States population suffers from pathological gambling problems, so this post probably won’t apply to most of our readers. In fact, our assumption has always been that most of our readers gamble responsibly and that they do so only with money they can afford to lose. Still, if you’re interested in learning more about how this hobby can affect your moods and hormones, this post might be of interest.

We spent hours combing the Internet for information about how gambling affects your moods and the hormones in your body which control those moods. The most interesting facts that we found are presented below, along with where we found the information. If you have a mood disorder, playing cards for money or playing casino games might be a bad idea.

And if you already know you need help, please do seek it from somewhere. We don’t want to see anyone’s life ruined because of a silly hobby like blackjack, craps, or slot machines. Gambling is like drinking—it’s fine if you do it in moderation, but taken to excess, it can ruin your life.

1. A relationship exists between mood disorders and problem gambling.

You know what gambling is, and you’ve probably at least heard the expression “gambling addict”. You might be less familiar with major mood disorders, though. You might also be surprised to learn about some of the surprising relationships between these mood disorders and problem gambling.

Major mood disorders can be categorized into 2 different types:

  • Depressive
  • Manic

Depressive mood disorders involve a chemical imbalance in the brain which leads to what we call depression. It’s important to understand that this is different from the blahs and the blues that everyone encounters during daily life. To be considered a full-fledged mood disorder, this kind of depression must affect your functioning for at least 2 weeks at a time or more.

Someone who’s suffering from this kind of depression might exhibit behaviors like a lack of interest in doing things they’re usually interested in. They might feel guilty or worthless. They often see weight changes of greater than 5% of their body weight over the course of a month—this could be weight gain OR weight loss.

Manic mood disorders also involve a chemical imbalance, but in this case, the imbalance exhibits itself in the opposite way from a depressive disorder. Usually this means excessive happiness and/or irritability. To qualify for this category, the behavior only needs to last for a week or more at a time.

Someone who’s suffering from mania might exhibit behaviors that would indicate grandiosity or feelings of being invincible. They might also not need sleep. They talk a lot. They might also be paranoid and reluctant to admit that there’s any kind of problem.

But what does all this have to do with gambling addiction?

There is a significant amount of clinical evidence to suggest that there is at least a link between problem gambling and mood disorders. One study suggests that 1/3 of problem gamblers have at least one parent with a mood disorder. 20% of recovering gambling addicts still exhibit depressive behavior even after stopping gambling for a significant period of time.

And the depression rate among gambling addicts under treatment is as high as 50% to 75%.

What does all this mean?

If you’re a problem gambler, by all means, seek help. But don’t stop with just the first 12 step program you can find for gambling addicts. Get yourself screened by a psychiatric professional for mood disorders, too.

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2. Gambling addiction is often overlooked, but you can stop avoid it.

People don’t take gambling addiction as seriously as drug addiction or alcoholism, but they probably should. Compulsive behavior can always lead to financial ruin, being institutionalized, or death, and compulsive gambling is no exception. Too many people attribute the wrong motives to gambling addicts, but if you know what signs to look for, you can distinguish between players who just have an urge to play games and/or win money and those with a problem.

One of the first things to look for is an interest in gambling that seems obsessive. Someone is obsessed with something when it’s all they think about and/or talk about. If you or someone you know has lost interest in everything except gambling, then that’s an example of obsession.

Something else to look for is an inability to stop gambling. Maybe you have a buddy who lost all his gambling bankroll on his last trip to Vegas, and even though he had money set aside for meals and transportation to and from the airport, he couldn’t stop gambling and lost that too. People who borrow money in order to keep in action are also demonstrating an inability to quit.

Ignoring the consequences of gambling is another sign to look for. Your buddy in the last example was also exhibiting that behavior, especially if denies that it was his gambling that caused the problem.

Withdrawal symptoms aren’t just physical, and they’re not exclusively the realm of drug addicts or alcoholics. Psychological withdrawal symptoms include irritability, nervousness, and panic. Depression or restlessness might also be withdrawal symptoms.

Having fun when gambling is the whole point. It is an entertainment-based activity, after all. But if that’s the only reason someone gambles, or if it’s the only way someone can feel pleasure, we’re treading closer to addictive behavior. This one is a judgment call that maybe only the person gambling is qualified to make.

If someone is stealing or doing something else against the law in order to stay in action, they almost certainly have a problem. That kind of behavior is exactly what you’d expect from someone with a behavioral disorder.

Denial is often touted as a sign of addiction, but we’ve always rolled our eyes at this one a little bit. Sure, gambling addicts might deny they have a problem. But someone who DOESN’T have a problem is equally as likely to deny their problem. It’s hard to consider that one a definitive indicator.

Mood swings and financial problems are also common among people with compulsive behaviors, especially the latter, and especially when dealing with placing bets compulsively. People who are borrowing money constantly to support their “poker hobby” probably have an issue.

Finally, one of the classic symptoms of addiction is trying to hide your behavior from someone else. Someone who hides the fact that they ate 2 pints of Ben and Jerrys might be a compulsive overeater. And someone who plays blackjack in secret in the middle of the night while lying to their wife about it might be a gambling addict.

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3.  Problem gamblers also engage in other risky behaviors.

Of course, the definition of gambling is risking something of value in the hopes of winning something else of value. So it should surprise no one that one of the common behaviors among problem gamblers is risk-taking behavior. These symptoms are also common among people who are in the manic phase of their bipolar disorder or who are just plain manic.

Compulsive shopping is one high risk behavior that’s also common among gambling addicts. This might not seem risky, but if the shopper isn’t planning out his finances, he risks going broke and/or possibly not being able to pay his rent or other bills. If someone in this situation owes money to the government (say the IRS, for example), he risks jail time or worse.

Having unprotected sex with strangers is another example of the high-risk behavior we’re talking about. You’ll notice that this activity, along with the first one, can easily be associated with one of the symptoms of mania that we talked about earlier—feelings of invincibility. Of course, both compulsive shopping and compulsive sex can be considered addictions in their own right, too.

Engaging in risky behaviors is one of the problem signs that psychiatrists look for when they diagnose people with manic disorders and/or bipolar disorder. Sitting in front of slot machines or video poker machines for hours on end can be one way to self-medicate for that condition. Acting on impulse and needing little sleep are both symptoms we discussed earlier in this post.

The good news is that bipolar disorder can be treated, and if the treatment is effective, the problem gambling can also improve and/or cease. Psychiatrists treat bipolar disorder with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, which are strong antidepressant medications. Lithium is also commonly prescribed to reduce the likelihood of impulsive behaviors.

The bottom line, again, is that you can be treated and improve your quality of life.

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4. Pathological gambling often leads to other health problems.

It might seem like a minor quirk or a funny habit, but being a gambling addict can lead to other, serious health issues. Obviously, some of the more common health problems are psychiatric in nature, but you might be surprised as some of the potential physical health risks associated with compulsive gambling, too.

Some of the psychological conditions that can be caused by problem gambling include:

  • Alcoholism
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Drug addiction

Some of the physical conditions that can be caused by problem gambling include:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Ulcers

But the problems associated with this kind of compulsion aren’t just limited to health problems that can be treated with medication and/or therapy. There are emotions to deal with as well as practical social consequences, too.

For example, feelings of guilt and shame aren’t really considered a psychological illness. But they are common among people who spend too much time in casinos or placing sports bets.

Legal problems related to troubles with the IRS are just one example of the kinds of social problems you might face. If you’re missing time from work, you also face potential career problems. Relationship problems can be caused by or exacerbated by the fallout from this addictive behavior, too.

The good news is that gambling addiction isn’t nearly as common as one might think after reading this much of this blog post. Only an estimated 1% to 3% of the population suffer from this condition. That makes it comparable to alcoholism, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.

We’re not trying to make light of this as a problem. We do want to point out that most people, including most of our readers, don’t have to face it as a problem. But for those of you who do think you might have a problem, please, seek help as soon as possible. Life is short and precious, and you should make the most of it.

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5. Slot machines might be the “crack cocaine” of gambling.

We love slot machines. We prefer video poker or blackjack, but we do love sitting there and mindlessly watching the reels spin. We also love the possibility of nailing a really big jackpot. We’re not alone in our love for these games—80% of the floorspace of modern American casinos are devoted to the slots.

But slot machines are a perfect example of the gambling industry creating a machine which practically creates problem gamblers. When you learn a little bit about the psychology behind slot machines, you might be less tempted to put your money in them.

There are 2 things that slot machine designers pay attention to now more than anything else:

  • Rewards schedules
  • Tracking systems

A rewards schedule is an idea that can be traced back to behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. His most famous experiment involved giving pigeons pellets when they pressed a lever on a box. The control group received food pellets every time they pressed a lever. The other group received food pellets randomly, only some of the time when they pressed a lever.

Surprisingly, the pigeons who only received the pellets some of the time were more likely to pull the lever and did so more often. This is called a rewards system, and intermittent rewards are generally more effective at motivating people to do something.

But it’s not just a matter of rewarding someone intermittently. There’s a balance to this process. If you reward someone too often, they get less motivated. And if you don’t motivate them often enough, they also get less motivated.

This is the logic behind modern slot machines, which are scientifically designed to be relatively low volatility games compared to the slots of days past. They pay out more often, but the winnings are smaller. In the case of multi-line slots, you’ll often win less money than you bet on that spin.

But your brain receives the same endorphin boost from a net loss like that as it would if you’d won a small profit.

You’ll often see writers imploring you to sign up for the slots club at the casino. This is a good idea, but you should also be aware that this is the casino’s tracking system. They team up with the slot machine manufacturers to track the amount of time players spend on each machine. The more time a player spends playing a given game, the more profitable it turns out to be in the long run.

The importance of this can’t be overstated. The data gathered about each consumer via these slots club cards are used to tailor specific marketing materials to groups in order to maximize their responses to them. Marketing companies spend big money for information like this. Caesar’s database of slots club members is estimated to be worth $1 billion.

What information are they most interested in?

Frankly, it has a lot to do with how much money a player is willing to lose before she’ll walk away from the game. But they can also compare this information with what incentives were big enough to get that player to start playing again.

A casino can also use this aggregate data to see a heat map of the casino—where are the most slots players putting the most money into action at any given time. This information can then be used to re-organize the game placement for optimal profitability.

They use scientific analysis to compare all the factors you can imagine on a slot machine, too. The colors, the sounds, and the themes are all carefully chosen for the effect they have on the player. Never forget that their primary goal is to win as much of your money as possible.

Here’s one example of how these games work, sometimes accidentally, to generate the appropriate hormonal and psychological response from the players.

The Wheel of Fortune slot machine is probably the most popular casino game in the world, but why?

IGT commissioned a study to find out why the game was so popular. What they discovered is that people of the demographic who do the most gambling associate the sounds of the game—which are derived from the sounds of the TV show—with watching television with their grandmother. What could possibly make someone feel better than reminding them of the time they spent with their grandmothers?

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6. Sports betting is popular with problem gamblers.

Dr. Eric Geffner is a psychiatrist who specializes in treating problem gamblers. He says that about 40% of his patients are sports bettors, but none of those sports bettors are women. (To be fair, he did say he had one woman with this problem—but one patient in several years? That’s pretty telling.) This might surprise some readers, because, after all, sports betting is illegal throughout the United States—except in Nevada.

But that doesn’t mean it’s hard to place a sports bet. In fact, illegal bookies are commonplace throughout the United States. And where do you meet a bookmaker? Most people agree that the best place to find someone to take your sports betting action is in a bar.

Of course, you’d never find people with impulse control problems hanging out in a bar, would you?

But one of the dangers of doing business with these underground bookmakers is that they’ll often extend credit to you. That’s a dangerous way to gamble, and it’s easy to quickly get in over your head and be unable to catch up.

Sports betting is ubiquitous in the United States because most of us get introduced to it as an activity in our youth. And if you have friends who are sports fans, and you’re not, then one of the best ways to make a boring game more interesting is to have some money on the line. In fact, betting on these games can often become an important part of a person’s life.

In fact, according to Dr. Geffner, many of his patients reach a point where their sports betting activities seem more important to them than their real life activities. That’s a dangerous situation that most of us would probably want to avoid.

One aspect of sports betting that contributes to making it so addictive is the amount of mental activity involved prior to placing a bet. Most bettors are convinced that they’re really knowledgeable about whatever sport they’re betting on. That may be so, but the percentage of people who can consistently overcome the vig when betting on sports is tiny. If it weren’t, the sports books wouldn’t be able to stay in business.

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7. Is it still an addiction if you’re winning?

Here’s an important question that’s worth thinking about:

Is a gambling problem still an addiction if you’re a winner in the long run?

After all, there are several betting activities in which you can get a positive expected return in the long run. These include:

  • Blackjack – If you’re counting cards or using other advantage play techniques.
  • Horse betting – If you become an excellent handicapper.
  • Poker – If you’re skilled enough to beat all the other players by enough to compensate for the rake.
  • Sports betting – If you’re a good enough handicapper to overcome the vig.
  • Video poker – If you’re good at recognizing the right pay tables, can take advantage of the promotional offers, and play with near perfect strategy on almost every hand.

Being a professional gambler is hard work, and it isn’t nearly as glamorous as you’d think. Nor does it pay as well as you might expect.

But can a professional gambler who’s winning be gambling addict?

Ben Affleck seems to think so. It was well-publicized that he had been asked to stop gambling at a Las Vegas casino because he was too good at counting cards. But he mentioned in an ET interview that he was developing a problem, although he was still derisive of the casino banning him just because he was winning.

Stu Ungar is an example of a professional gambler with an addictive personality. He was a legend at the poker table, but he was also notorious for his substance abuse issues. And even though he was a great poker player, he was also known to occasionally gamble on casino games where the house had an unassailable edge. This kind of self-destructive behavior is exactly the kind of warning sign you should look for when trying to decide whether you or someone you love has a problem.

Ungar’s story ended sadly. He died of a heart attack, probably brought on by his drug addiction issues, when he was only 45 years old. No one should have to die that young.

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8. Older Americans get hooked on gambling pretty often, too.

We read an article about the target demographic for slot machine designers which mentioned that their favorite demographic was the person who watched Friends religiously when it was still on the air. And someone in that age group might be the perfect target for a slot machine designer or a casino, but they’re certainly not the only age group who might develop a problem.

One of the more interesting stories about this problem in older problem was about the widow of the founder of Jack in the Box. Her name was Maureen O’Connor, and she was once the mayor of San Diego. She was also the heir to a $50 million fortune. She spent so much money playing video poker that the casinos would fly her in on a private jet.

How did she get started gambling?

It all started when she was depressed after her husband died. She started gambling to change the way she feels.

She eventually lost over $13 million.

This is more common in older people than you might think. The general population might be limited to between 1% and 3% in terms of gambling addiction, but according to AARP, the 50+ crowd has a faster-growing population of problem gamblers than any other group. In fact, it’s estimated that 8% of senior citizens have a gambling problem.

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9. It’s all about dopamine.

All addictions can eventually be traced back to imbalances related to the production of a hormone called dopamine. This is the chemical that most people think makes them feel good. The reality is actually a little more complicated.

Dopamine is the chemical that provides you with feedback when you get rewards of some kind. If you’re addicted to something, and you see it, then your brain gets a shot of dopamine. But if you’re not allowed to have it, the dopamine in your brain suddenly decreases.

Here’s an example:

You’re an alcoholic. Someone pours a drink. Dopamine levels in your brain rise.

You get a phone call. It’s an emergency. You’re not able to drink it, because you have to leave to deal with the emergency. That feeling of anger and irritation is directly related to the drop in dopamine levels in your brain.

So dopamine plays a role in any addiction, whether it’s related to the ingestion of chemicals or not. People who claim that things like sex and gambling can’t be addictive just don’t understand well enough how brain chemistry works.

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10. There are many treatment options for people with gambling problems.

Many people are familiar with the 12 step approach to treating various addictions. But not everyone is sold on that approach. It’s been described as “cultish” because of its spiritual approach. You can find reams of complaints and dissatisfaction with AA on the Internet, some of it for valid reasons.

But that is not the only treatment for an addiction, and if you suffer from a pathological gambling issue, you do have multiple treatment options to choose from. You should feel free to experiment with them and decide for yourself what is going to work best with you and your lifestyle.

According to Dr. Timothy Fong, most treatment options work if the patient fully commits to whatever program she embarks on. He does point out that Gamblers Anonymous is the most widely available self help group for this purpose.

One treatment option that isn’t available to addicted gamblers is drugs. There are no drugs approved by the FDA for the treatment of gambling addiction. Of course, if the gambling is related to other issues—like bipolar disorder, depression, or mania, drugs which treat those might help with the gambling, too.

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Conclusion

Gambling addiction is a real problem, even though it doesn’t involve the physical ingestion of a chemical. Being a gambling addict is no less a problem than being a drug addict or an alcoholic. In fact, the effects on your brain chemistry are pretty similar, regardless of what you’re addicted to.

Becoming aware of the risks is only one step in making sure that you’re okay. Watch for the warning signs of being a pathological gambler. These include behavior like hiding your activities, being reckless, and facing unexpected consequences from your behavior. If you have other problems, like depression or bipolar disorder, you’re at an even greater risk of developing a problem. You should also be cautious about gambling if you’re over the age of 50.

If you or someone you know has a gambling problem, get help. It’s serious. Life is short and precious. Don’t waste it as a slave to an activity that’s supposed to be harmless entertainment.

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