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Understanding the Connection Between Addiction and Gambling


Substance use disorder (SUD), also known as addiction, is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) as a complex, chronic brain disorder. The Mayo Clinic explains addiction as a disease “that affects a person’s brain and behavior and leads to an inability to control the use of a legal or illegal drug or medication” without regard for consequence. There is a common misconception that addiction must involve a physical dependence on one or more substances. Nevertheless, addiction can occur in many forms, which are typically divided into two categories: substance addiction and process addiction, also known as behavioral addiction. 

The critical difference between substance addiction and behavioral addiction is that process addictions do not involve a physical dependence on a substance. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines addiction as “a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinence.” The American Psychiatric Association, for example, refers to gambling disorder as a process addiction. 

The connection between addiction and gambling disorder is that they are two variations of the same condition that manifest as harmful patterns within a specific domain. Gambling disorder is listed in the DSM-5 under the process addiction category. The primary feature of process addictions is “the failure to resist an impulse, drive, or temptation to perform an act that is harmful to the person or to others.” The areas of the brain that are triggered through gambling reflect those affected when an individual engages in substance abuse. 

Neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are stimulated by both substance abuse and gambling, respectively. Dopamine is known as the feel-good neurotransmitter. It is the chemical that transmits information between neurons. It is naturally released in one’s brain from experiencing certain pleasurable stimuli (e.g., exercising, eating food, having sex, etc.). An individual that abuses certain substances can increase the release of dopamine in one’s brain, creating a feeling of euphoria. Similarly, an individual that engages in gambling may experience the same increase in dopamine level production, triggering a feeling of euphoria. When dopamine is released in one’s brain (regardless of the source) an individual struggling with addiction will continue to seek the stimuli that created the euphoric feeling and return to it regularly. This, in turn, can strengthen synaptic connections creating neural pathways that support one’s addiction within his or her brain. Research shows behavioral addictions, such as gambling addiction, mirror substance use addictions in their comorbidity, symptom presentation, neurobiological mechanism, and response to treatment.

For Information and Support 

Substance abuse and addiction can be incredibly dangerous and can result in severe short and long-term consequences. If you or someone you know is suffering from substance abuse or addiction, please get help as soon as possible. The earlier you seek support, the sooner you and your loved ones can return to leading happy, healthy, and fulfilling lives. There is no reason to go through this alone, and we are here to help. Please feel free to reach out to us for further information or with any questions regarding substance abuse or addiction. We are available anytime via telephone at: 213-389-9964, or you can always email us at:

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