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The Gambling Life: High Rewards but Higher Risks

By Martha Michael

Gambling Addiction

If you’re a sports nut, you probably engage in some friendly betting -- over crosstown rivalries, Super Bowl scores, or March Madness tournament brackets.

It is reported that $6.8 billion would be bet on Kansas City’s 31-20 victory over the 49ers in the Super Bowl, and that $8.5 billion was wagered on the 2019 NCAA men’s basketball tournament won by Virginia over Texas Tech.

Yet gambling extends beyond the one-off big events and the felt-covered tables in casinos across America. Fantasy Football is an $18.6 billion industry that involves more than 50 million individuals, including about 20 percent of the U.S. population; average spending totals $465 annually, according to Sports Management Degree Hub.

It’s one thing to visit Las Vegas or Atlantic City occasionally or drop $20 in a company-wide fantasy football league. But when you thirst for every opportunity to put your money on the line, the negative impact to your health is no fantasy. And it doesn’t matter which way the chips are falling.

Diagnosis

Now an accepted disorder, gambling addiction is included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, known as the DSM-5. An article in Medical News Today says that “problem gambling” is defined by a person whose compulsive behaviors intensify to create a feeling of being high.

To diagnose a gambling disorder, the DSM says the individual needs to experience at least four of the following symptoms within the last year:

  • Irritability when attempting to stop gambling
  • Attempts to stop, control, or reduce gambling with repeated failure
  • Increasing money spent gambling to feel high
  • Lying about gambling
  • Planning and contemplating opportunities to gamble
  • Gambling again to regain lost money
  • Gambling when distressed
  • Developing problems at work or in relationships due to gambling
  • Needing money from others to pay for gambling

Poker night with your friends doesn’t take you to the edge of reason, unless you’re betting the farm. It’s when your uncontrollable urge is stronger than the personal toll it’s taking that you know there’s a problem.

Mental/Emotional

For “gambling whales,” which are high rollers betting $1million-$20 million in a weekend, the perks can be very pleasurable. Casinos draw their business with free rooms, luxury cars, and shopping funds for spouses, says a Business Insider article.

To attract VIP gamblers, the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas underwent a remodel to create 21 penthouse suites on its top floor. Free meals offered to big bettors at the MGM Grand Hotel can total $600 per person.

But there’s another side of the coin which you experience when you become addicted to gambling. It occurs when an individual can’t reduce the desire for increasingly higher stakes and more trips to Vegas or other gambling locations. Sometimes it leads to marital discord and financial ruin. Going all in can literally cost you all you have.

There are more than 5.7 million Americans needing treatment from gambling disorders because of resulting issues with communication breakdowns and broken relationships, says the Medical News Today article. Like other addictions, problem gambling causes individuals to feel despondent and helpless, sometimes leading to suicide attempts.

While a gambling addiction can cause mental hardship, it can also be triggered by emotional circumstances, from loneliness to job stress. Studies show that compulsive gamblers often struggle with other addictions as well, as it has similar risk factors including anxiety, depression and personality disorders.

Physical

There are physical traits that contribute to developing a compulsion for gaming. Men are more likely to become addicted to gambling than women and people who take certain medications are at greater risk. Those drugs include antipsychotic medications and dopamine agonists.

An article on BrainFacts.org points out the similarities between the physical aspects of pathological gambling and other addictions, including:

  • Tolerance
  • Withdrawal
  • Unsuccessful attempts to quit
  • Major interference in one's life
  • Cravings and highs

Brain imaging shows a similarity between a gambling addict and a person addicted to substances. Brain activity is lower in the ventral striatum, or reward center, and the prefrontal cortex, which controls decision-making.

Calling it “reward deficiency,” scientists explain that the lower activation in the ventral striatum means that addicts seek ways to stimulate reward pathways with the high obtained through substance use or gambling.

The reduced activation of the prefrontal cortex in the brain makes addicts less able to control their impulses. They tend to choose immediate gratification over long-range benefits, which is how they can end up bankrupt for one night of pleasure.

So what does all that health science mean to a person who can’t keep himself from pulling up to the craps table or walking past a roulette wheel without dropping a Benjamin?

Financial distress is an obvious consequence of an extreme need for high stakes gaming, but your body can take a hit as well with some not-so-obvious consequences. Common symptoms of gambling addiction include migraine headaches, intestinal disorders, and other afflictions caused by excessive anxiety. This probably isn’t helped by free drinks, bleary-eyed late nights, and the second-hand smoke of a casino.

Being embedded in the gambling lifestyle can make you feel miserable emotionally, mentally, and physically even before the chips disappear -- potentially, along with your family and friends.

Even if you’re a winner, it doesn’t mean there’s no toll to be paid.

Treatment

If you believe you have a gambling problem, seek help. There are many professional outlets where individuals can help you determine if you’re addicted to gaming. You can gain access to resources through the National Council on Problem Gambling. You can also ask family members or others close to you for an accurate reflection of your gambling habits.

Online poker and fantasy sports, or other virtual gambling opportunities, can tempt you to pretend you don’t have a problem. They are, after all, in the business of making money by taking your money. But even make-believe betting can lead to negative consequences that are very real beyond the wallet.

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