In historical terms, the medical community has only recently recognized disordered gambling as a condition on par with other behavioral disorders, like substance use disorders. In the past, even the most enlightened medical professionals might have seen an individual’s inability to stop betting for sports in Atlantic City as a “failure of character.” Now, thanks to the efforts of pioneers like Dr. Robert Custer, we know that disordered gambling actually develops due to changes in brain chemistry over time. Today, therapists still refer to Dr. Custer’s model for how a gambling disorder develops. In his studies, Dr. Custer identified winning, losing, and desperation as the three major phases of disordered gambling.
Phase 1: Winning
At the most basic level, people develop gambling disorders due to how the brain chemical dopamine affects behavior. Dopamine causes that rush of happiness or excitement that one feels after winning a bet or wager. After a gambler experiences the rush of winning semi-regularly, they can get used to this feeling. If they continue to pursue the sensation — perhaps as a distraction from emotional pain elsewhere in their life — they may become desensitized to the dopamine their brain releases. To keep feeling the thrill of winning, they might place larger and riskier bets. This ultimately proves unsustainable and only worsens the stress and anxiety they experience when they inevitably lose.
Phase 2: Losing
Paradoxically, as a disordered gambler’s wins become less and less impactful to their emotional state, they become increasingly obsessed with the pastime. Wins hardly register — they’re already thinking of the next bet. More and more of their funds go to gambling. They soon develop serious financial issues. When they lose, they “chase the loss,” immediately trying to win back what they lost, perpetuating a self-destructive cycle.
Phase 3: Desperation
After a disordered gambler develops financial problems but still cannot stop gambling, they often feel deep remorse and shame. Unfortunately, this may cause them to alienate family and friends and try to hide their behavior. They may turn to substance use to distract themselves from this emotional pain. During this phase, gamblers may steal or commit fraud to continue funding their gambling. If left untreated, gamblers in the desperation phase may take drastic actions, leading to their arrest or even suicide.
No matter how far an individual’s gambling disorder has progressed, treatment and support can still help them recover. At the Council, we offer hope for anyone that resolves to change their behavior. If you or a loved one need help with unhealthy sports gambling in East Rutherford, NJ or any other gambling activity, call our free, confidential hotline, 1-800-GAMBLER.