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Gambling: How addiction happens

MICHIGAN — Sports betting has been legal in Michigan for about three months now. Many companies now take bets through mobile apps. Thus, gambling has become incredibly easy. We spoke with one doctor about what goes on in the brain when people gamble, and how to recognize gambling addiction.

Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, a Harvard–trained psychologist, said gambling, like most fun activities, causes your brain to release the feel–good chemical dopamine.

However, she says winning a gamble isn’t what causes the release.

“Dopamine levels increase in the moments leading up to a potential reward. And it’s that anticipation of the reward that leads to gambling high.”

Dr. Romanoff says this is why some gamblers are able to shrug off or ignore losses: they already got their rush. She added that most gambling machines use flashing lights and colorful graphics to provide smaller dopamine hits. These help the gambler feel like they’re ahead even after a series of losses.

However, dopamine has diminishing returns. The brain needs more to get the same high. Dr. Romanoff said this is what makes gambling so addictive for some: the bigger the risk, the better the rush. She said there are a few signs that someone is developing a gambling addiction or compulsion.

“…Needing to gamble more money to reach the same thrill. Also, trying to control or cut back without success. You’ll also see people gamble to escape problems or emotions like anxiety or feeling helpless.”

For those more susceptible to – or currently struggling with – addiction, Romanoff said mobile apps may be another risk factor.

“Gambling on your phone has actually been found to be more problematic… You can walk away from the table or the casino, but you always have your phone on you. So when gambling on your phone, there’s more regularity of checking into the app, betting more, and suffering more losses.”

If you think you might have a gambling addiction, you aren’t alone. According to the Lansing State Journal, the Michigan Problem Gambling Helpline received over 500 calls in February 2021. That’s over five times the number received at the same time in 2020.

You can call the National Gambling Helpline at 1-800-522-4700 or the Michigan Problem Gambling Helpline at  1-800-270-7117.

You can also find resources on the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services website.