Gambling and your mental health

Gambling can be fun when you’re winning, but it doesn’t take much for it to start taking a toll on your mental health.

When was the last time gambling made you feel good? Chances are if you’re a habitual gambler, it’s been a while, and you’re more preoccupied with chasing your losses than having a good time. 

Why does gambling feel good? 

Gambling taps into the brain’s reward system, with wins triggering a big surge of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter given the nickname of the ‘feel-good hormone’ because it’s responsible for our feelings of pleasure and motivation.  

Our brains are hard-wired to find behaviours that release dopamine to make us feel good, but these bursts of dopamine don’t last long. That’s why our brains are constantly seeking more, and why it’s easy to become addicted to what makes us feel good. 

What makes it stop feeling good? 

If you gamble a lot to try and recapture that initial winning feeling, your brain starts to get used to the dopamine hit and requires more and more to feel good. An example of this is needing to bet a higher stake to feel the same thrill you used to feel with a lower bet.  

Another effect of this is that other activities that should feel pleasurable don’t give you the same ‘high’ as gambling, so you start to gamble instead of doing other things. This is when addictive behaviour starts to take hold.  

How gambling affects your mental health 

You may start to feel like you have no control over your gambling behaviour, and this can be a source of anxiety. Gambling with money you can’t afford to lose adds feelings of stress and continuing to lose money when you feel like you should be winning and feelings of shame associated with this can make you feel depressed.  

The constant pressure to win and the fear of losing can trigger debilitating anxiety, which may manifest physically. That means you may experience symptoms like nausea, sweating and a high heart rate as well as feelings of anxiety in your head.  

For many people, this is a cycle that’s difficult to get out of. For example, you may gamble because you’re trying to take your mind off things that make you feel anxious in other areas of your life, but losing money makes your anxiety even worse. 

Getting help for gambling problems 

Because mental health is so closely linked with gambling addiction, many treatments are based on approaches to helping mental health problems. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a popular method to help people control their gambling: it looks at the way you think and gives you the tools you need to change negative thoughts.  

There’s always help available for gambling problems, and you should never hesitate to seek help if you’re worried about your gambling or mental health. See your GP for advice, or check out GamCare’s website [] for a range of helpful resources to start working on your relationship with gambling.