Anyone who dabbles in drugs and drink has the opportunity to develop a substance abuse issue. These substances are simply powerful, and they cause deep and intense changes in body chemistry that are hard to avoid and almost impossible to control. Those who pair drugs or drink with gambling, however, might have an even higher risk of developing a substance abuse issue. In fact, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reports that the rate of drug or alcohol abuse is six times higher among those who gamble pathologically, when compared to people who don’t gamble. The interaction is complex, but understanding the issue could allow people to get the help they need in order to leave both behaviors behind.
Anytime a person trades something valuable for the chance to win something else that’s valuable, the activity is considered a form of gambling. As a result, gambling can consist of:
- Buying scratch-off tickets
- Betting on sports teams
- Playing games at a casino
- Playing games on the computer
- Playing games with friends at home
Some people can engage in these activities from time to time, and they might never develop an unusual attachment to the behaviors. The National Council on Problem Gambling reports, however, that about 2 to 3 percent of adults in the United States can be considered problem gamblers. These people might find it difficult to stop gambling once they start, and they might have unusual or unhealthy thoughts relating to gambling. About 1 percent of American adults have an even more complex relationship with gambling, the Council reports, as these people might be considered pathologically addicted to gambling. They simply cannot seem to live without gambling, in one form or another, and they might be desperate to keep on gambling, despite the harm it might cause them.
On the surface, gambling and substance abuse don’t seem to have much in common. Much of the connection becomes clear, however, upon a closer inspection of the changes that take place deep within the body and the brain when a person engages in one or both of these behaviors. For example, many substances of abuse cause the brain to release large amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Similarly, the brain releases this same neurotransmitter in response to a big gambling win. No substance enters the body, but the chemical change is the same. When this chemical floods the body, the brain interprets this as a signal of pleasure and joy. In time, however, the person needs to take larger and larger amounts of drugs or obtain bigger and bigger wins in order to bring about the same response.
In time, people might need to gamble or to abuse substances in order to avoid feeling physically unwell. Their brains have been chemically altered, due to the choices they’ve made.
While chemical changes might lead to compulsive gambling and/or substance abuse, some research suggests that the behaviors might also develop due to the same brain abnormality. For example, research profiled by the National Institutes of Health suggests that people who have these behaviors have a lack of receptors associated with impulse control. These people have a physical inability to measure the impact of an action taken now, versus the cost this behavior might have on future health and happiness. The impaired brain makes good decision-making hard, and it might lead people to pick up a substance or engage in a behavior, where they may have avoided those acts when their brains were healthy. Even though researchers know quite a bit about how addiction and substance abuse work on a chemical level and how those behaviors might begin with changes inside the brain, they haven’t yet determined which problem tends to come first. According to a review article in the journal Alcohol Research and Health, most experts now suggest that the two problems tend to stem from the same root causes, and they tend to erupt at the same time. The impulse control issue may drive both behaviors, but the gambling lifestyle might also play a role.
Substances of abuse are often served in places that host gambling, including:
- Private parties
- Horse tracks
- Sports stadiums
Drugs and alcohol can lend a festive atmosphere to an activity that isn’t always pleasant, and the numbing effect of these substances can keep people playing, even when they really should be counting their losses and going home again. Addictive substances can also numb the pain of a loss and allow people to forget their troubles, at least for awhile. For some people, the act of gambling and the act of substance abuse become intertwined and tangled, with one activity supporting the other in an endless loop. The chemistry might underlie the behaviors, but the two behaviors might become so connected in the user’s mind that it’s difficult to perform one act without beginning the other. In time, the two actions just seem to belong together. Regardless of which behavior comes first, it’s clear that combining gambling with substance abuse can produce a toxic mix that can decimate a family’s hopes and dreams. People may spend all of their money on either games of chance or substances of abuse, and they may be unwilling or unable to spend time with the people they love. Every spare moment might be spent chasing the next win or finding the next score. Jobs might fade away, as might any vision of a healthy and happy future. In some cases, people are even arrested for their behaviors involving drugs, alcohol or gambling.
Why Treatment Helps
While treatment programs can’t erase all the damage that gambling and addiction can cause, these programs can help people to see their behaviors clearly, and they might allow people to make better choices for themselves and their families. Some therapists begin their work by asking their clients to think about how their behaviors allow them to reach their life goals. Does spending money on gambling make the family happier? Does taking drugs make them better parents? These are tough questions, and the answers can help people become motivated to make the lasting changes that can lead to sobriety. Therapy might also allow people to see how a gambling addiction always leads to loss. For example, in a study in the journal Psychopathology, researchers found that people who bet on sports games regularly were not better at choosing winners than people who didn’t know anything about sports at all. These experienced betters likely thought they had some kind of advantage and were bound to win, and yet, the games are based on factors that no one can predict. They really are games of chance, and anyone can lose or win. Lessons like this, learned through therapy, can help people see the act of gambling in a clear light, and they might be motivated to curb their behavior as a result. People who gamble and take drugs might also do so in response to specific triggers, including:
- A low mood
- A frustrating day at work
- Lack of emotional support
- High stress levels
- Specific locations in which they’ve gambled or taken drugs
Spotting these triggers is difficult to do alone, but therapists can help people to break their days apart and really examine their prompts and their thoughts. In time, they can spot the emotional states and other triggers that lead them to destructive behaviors, and they can develop new tasks they can use when the need for destruction begins to grow. Some people also benefit from support group meetings, including Alcoholics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous. These organizations allow people to connect with others who have similar addictions and compulsions, and they can share stories and support one another through difficult times. It’s not considered a treatment for addiction, per se, as there’s no therapist involved in these meetings and no individualized help is provided, but the sense of isolation that can drive destructive behaviors may fade away when people have a connection to others who understand their thoughts, fears and beliefs. The need for community might also be acute for people with gambling and substance abuse issues, as games of chance are often played in social contexts. People in recovery might have no idea about how to find new friends or fill up the time that was once spent buying drugs or playing games. At Futures of Palm Beach, we understand this quite well. That’s why our treatment facility offers so many shared spaces, including a gym, a pool and a dining hall. We encourage our clients to talk with one another and share with one another, and we provide a comfortable and beautiful environment in which people can feel safe and supported. Here, you really can get better. Please call us anytime, day or night, to find out more about our program, or send us a private message and we’ll get right back to you with the answers to any questions you might have.