Help on Gambling, Behavioural Addictions and Eating Disorders

There are two types of triggers for addiction: mood-altering substances and mood-altering activities or behaviours. The process of addiction as we have described it can result from excessive ingestion of a substance such as alcohol, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, nicotine, caffeine, sugar or prescription drugs. The same process can occur as a result of excessive behaviours or activities that change brain chemistry. Behaviours that can become excessive and compulsive, and therefore addictions, are gambling or risk-taking, working or over-achieving, excessive sexual activity and certain eating behaviours. We can also include here any excessive or compulsive behaviours such as excessive spending or compulsive saving, or perhaps a relationship that becomes excessive or compulsive. It can be playing computer games, or racing cars, or golfing, or running. It is not so much what you do as how you do it.

You may be wondering how an activity can bring about brain-chemistry changes if no addictive substance as such is ingested. The explanation lies in a better understanding of the relationship between body, mind and biochemistry.

The power of our thoughts and feelings

All our thoughts, feelings and actions affect brain chemistry; and brain chemistry affects our thoughts, feelings and actions. You have no doubt heard about the ‘power of positive thinking’. There is also power in negative thinking. Happy thoughts cause a release of chemicals in the body. So do angry thoughts, sad thoughts and worry thoughts. Were you ever in physical or emotional pain and then smiled because of something sweet your child or pet did and then realised that your pain was diminished? Were you ever feeling great and then happened to think about some disturbing situation that caused you to feel tired or perhaps develop a headache? These are examples of the power of our thoughts and feelings.

Our thoughts and actions

Even more powerful than thoughts and feelings are our actions. Think about a time when your child or pet did something amusing and you laughed out loud. How did you feel? A full body laugh changes your brain chemistry for 45 minutes. We refer to these as endogenous (inner) opioids because the release of this brain neurotransmitter is not triggered by something you consume; it comes from within.

There are activities that change our biochemistry so much that we want to do them over and over. Some people get a biochemical response from shoplifting or inappropriate sex that is equal to, or greater than, a heroin injection. Nature has given us natural substances in the brain to give us pleasure and a sense of reward, and to mediate pain. These neurotransmitters work to give pleasure as well as relieve physical as well as emotional pain. People born with the inability to feel good will look for ways to stimulate the release of these chemicals.

The neurotransmitters that are released from risk-taking or sex are metabolised through the same dopamine pathway as cocaine, heroin or alcohol. And if the person has a reward deficit that predisposes to addiction, the activity that works will be repeated as often as necessary to get the desired reward. For the person predisposed to addiction the chosen activity will rapidly go from self-medication to addiction.

Addictive behaviour

Work addiction is fairly common in our society because overworking is applauded and rewarded. And the painful consequences of overworking may not be as apparent or recognised as activities that do not have the same kind of social payoff. But work addiction is not the same as the compulsion to achieve. Some people get their biochemical payoff from the act of working whereas others get it from the accomplishment that results.

Risk-taking and gambling addiction are much the same. That is one of the reasons that this is such a difficult behaviour to control – it just changes forms. For some people gambling addiction takes the form of shoplifting or other behaviours that carry a risk of getting caught. The euphoria of shoplifting does not lie in the item taken but in the mood-altering event of taking it. If the item were free, it would not bring the same pleasure.

Case Study: Ben

Ben developed an addiction to casino gambling. His family and friends were quite astonished by this behaviour because even gambling on cards was not customary for him. A friend talked him into going to the casino the first time, where he discovered a game that was a combination of skill and luck; and the challenge of it hooked him immediately. He won, and it was exhilarating. He...

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