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What Happens to the Brain When a Gambler Quits Gambling?

In recent years, research has increasingly found that addiction and compulsion bear more resemblance to disease than other types of habits. That is not to say that everyone who enjoys gambling, or even gambling habitually, is suffering from a gambling addiction. However, it has been found that habitual behavior does in fact change the map […]

In recent years, research has increasingly found that addiction and compulsion bear more resemblance to disease than other types of habits. That is not to say that everyone who enjoys gambling, or even gambling habitually, is suffering from a gambling addiction. However, it has been found that habitual behavior does in fact change the map of the brain even if it does not rise to the level of addiction. Furthermore, habits can change the mind as well as the brain; the mind is the invisible world of thought, self-conception, belief, and action. It can change independently of the brain’s physical processes or because of it. Here’s how that happens.

Compulsion or Addiction?

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The first thing to determine about the way the brain will react to quitting is to determine how the brain reacts to persisting. There are several chemicals the brain produces to encourage repeated behavior. For example, sugary foods are dense with energy; therefore, the brain releases dopamine when you eat sugar to encourage you to eat more of it. When sugar was scarce, that was a great evolutionary incentive. Now, it’s something that must be resisted, lest you eat far too much sugar. The same thing happens when you do something pleasurable like gambling.

In fact, researchers have found that dopamine released during gambling is similar to dopamine released after ingesting addictive drugs. The research has found that dopamine is released whenever something occurs that helps human beings survive or pass along their genes; that’s a basic evolutionary goal. When you have a “near miss” while gambling, the brain basically thinks that you’ve narrowly missed a truly rewarding situation. Therefore, dopamine is released.

That’s why gambling can be categorized as an addiction instead of a compulsion. A compulsion is an activity that one engages in to reduce anxiety. Oftentimes, compulsions are illogical, but they often do work to reduce anxiety. For example, a compulsive person might feel the need to wear a certain t-shirt or avoid a certain street in order to prevent some faraway disaster. Obviously, their actions have no bearing on the faraway disaster, but they reduce anxiety. An addiction is different because it is about seeking pleasure. That’s why habitual gambling can be addictive. So, what happens when you stop?

What Happens When You Stop?

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The longer you gamble, or engage in any addictive activity, the more neural pathways are rewritten. The brain creates more and more pathways to process more dopamine. That means that you’ll need to produce even more dopamine to recreate the same feeling that you had when you were new to gambling. This leads to riskier behavior. Many people will start gambling more, making bigger bets, and making riskier moves. These things help to produce more dopamine, but they also produce less desirable consequences. This is oftentimes when the addiction leads to behavior such as stealing, losing jobs, and neglecting family.

There are several ways to quit gambling. Some people shift to gambling at trusted casinos online. These are often less risky because they have lower stakes; also, they’re legal. One of the worst gateways to crime is turning to criminals for your gambling. A good online casino is one way that people can slowly step down their gambling.

The ultimate goal is to quit gambling or at least to quit gambling in a problematic way. When that happens, the first changes are in the brain. The brain starts to depend on the stimuli that releases the dopamine. Since there are more pathways than before, the lack of dopamine is felt even more strongly. The withdrawal symptoms from gambling are mostly mental but there are physical responses.

The physical responses to quitting gambling tend to revolve around anxiety and depression. That’s a function of the lack of dopamine.

Everyone’s mind responds differently. Most people report feeling bored and having a hard time coping with stress. Many also say that skipping gambling for a day or two causes anxiety but they can work through it. However, the thought of never gambling again fills them with anxiety and dread. That makes it more difficult for them to quit. That’s why so many people choose rehabilitation programs to help them learn strategies.

Quitting Strategies

There are several different ways to quit gambling. Most of the effects are mental; therefore, the best way to quit gambling is to treat the mind. The change in dopamine is a physical effect. Therefore, you need to counteract that as well. To counteract the physical effects, you need to find healthy ways to replace dopamine. Exercise, meaningful relationships, and hard work can all release dopamine in the brain. They’ll help you replace the thrill that you're missing from gambling.

However, you need to also treat the mental aspects. The mental aspects involve dread, boredom, and the sheer size of the task you’re undertaking. It can be difficult to imagine quitting gambling for your entire life, especially if it has been a big part of your life for a long time. That’s why so many people choose to go to a program.

The most common program is some adaptation of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program. The most popular is known as Gamblers Anonymous. It involves recognizing that you do not have complete control over your gambling. That’s something many gamblers have a difficult time admitting because so much of gambling is about asserting control over uncontrollable factors. Gamblers tend to be very superstitious, which is a trick the mind plays on you to assert control. Furthermore, gamblers often fall prey to “the gambler’s fallacy.” For example, if you flip a coin and it lands on tails five times in a row, the gambler’s fallacy insists that it is more likely to land on heads next time. However, that’s not the case. The probability of each coin flip is 50/50 regardless of what happened previously.

Relinquishing that control is one of the most significant mental changes when you stop gambling. Fortunately, your mind is under your control. If you go out and learn how to recognize your mind playing tricks on you, you’ll be able to assert your control.

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