Gambling is risking something of value, usually money or possessions, on an event whose outcome is determined by chance. It can include: a) playing cards, dice and other board games; b) betting on horse races, football accumulators, lottery results and elections; c) speculating on business, insurance or stock market outcomes; and d) gaming machines such as video poker and slot machines.

People gamble for many reasons, including entertainment, a desire to win or make more money, and socializing with friends. However, most people who gamble do so responsibly. Some people, however, become addicted to gambling and develop a gambling disorder.

Pathological gambling used to be viewed as a form of recreational interest or poor judgment, but is now recognised as an impulse control disorder similar to addictions to drugs and alcohol. The change reflects our growing understanding of how chemical messages in the brain are triggered by certain actions and how genetic and environmental factors can influence an individual’s vulnerability to developing an addiction.

When an individual becomes addicted to gambling, they may continue to gamble despite the negative consequences in their lives and relationships. They might lie to family and therapists to hide their gambling behaviour, and might even commit illegal acts to fund their habit (e.g. forgery, theft or embezzlement). In some cases, they might even lose their jobs or educational and career opportunities.

Problem gambling is widespread and affects a large number of individuals in the United States. More than 2.5 million U.S adults (1%) are estimated to meet the diagnostic criteria for a severe gambling problem, and another 5-8 million (2-3%) have mild or moderate problems. People with mild or moderate gambling problems are not likely to seek treatment, but those with severe problem may benefit from seeking help and avoiding the activities that trigger their addictions.

The best way to address a gambling disorder is with professional help, either in a clinic or peer support group such as Gamblers Anonymous, which is based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Other important steps include strengthening one’s support network, finding a hobby or other activities that will take the place of gambling, such as sports teams and book clubs, enrolling in an education class, volunteering for a cause or getting involved in community politics, and limiting access to cash by taking away credit cards, placing them with someone else or having banks set up automatic payments, closing online gambling accounts, and keeping only a small amount of cash on hand. In addition to treatment, it is important to treat underlying mood disorders that can trigger or be made worse by compulsive gambling, such as depression and anxiety. Mood disorders also can make it difficult to concentrate on other tasks, which is why it is especially important that gamblers keep up with their treatment program. This will help them to focus on other things besides gambling and prevent relapse. If you are struggling with a gambling problem, we encourage you to call our helpline for free and confidential support.