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Compulsive gambling is it really an addiction?

Compulsive gambling, sex addiction (including pornography), compulsive retail/ shopping, and obsessive online gaming are all categorised, in addiction terms, as process or behavioural addictions.

Process or behavioural addictions are simply defined as an addiction not induced by a substance or chemical.

For years behavioural psychologists argued that the concept of addiction is meaningful and should not be restricted to the ingestion of drugs or alcohol. However, this argument was scientifically unsupported. Research evidenced beyond doubt that alcohol and powerful addictive drugs, such as heroin, have potential to lead to physical and subsequent psychological addiction.

So why do behavioural pursuits such as gambling also have potential to lead to dependency, with those inflicted presenting similar negative signs and symptoms normally associated with alcoholics and drug addicts?

Compulsive gamblers have a preoccupation with gambling akin to that of a heroin addict waiting for their dealer to arrive.

Modern neuroimaging technologies and research now supports the argument that pleasurable activities, such as gambling can also lead to addiction. The brain registers and archives all pleasures in the same way, whether they initiate with a chemical or gambling reward. Each pleasure has a distinct signature in the brain causing the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine release is so dependably correlated with pleasure that today in neurobiology we identify this area of the brain as the ‘pleasure centre’.

Dopamine also reinforces learnt behaviour and memory. Basically, behaviour and memory are fundamental in in the progression from liking something into becoming addicted. Continuous use of addictive substances or behaviours progresses the person to wanting more and more. Regardless of what appears to be the absence of logical, moral or responsible thought.

From the outside looking in the compulsive gambler presents as having low tolerance or moral deficiency, forsaking everything in favour of the next bet, roll of the dice, or spin of the roulette wheel.

Science may now indicate neurobiological proof the compulsive gambler is as addicted to gambling as that of the acholic is to alcohol. However, this does not or must not negate or excuse behaviour.  Accountability for the compulsive gambler to remedy their addiction is as much their responsibility as the diabetic taking charge for keeping their blood sugar levels within normal realms.

Determining if you have a gambling problem isn’t completely straightforward, and admitting it isn’t easy, largely because of the associated stigma and shame. But as with any compulsion or addiction acknowledgement is key.

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