ODDS are that you wager a bet every now and then. Be it a lottery ticket, scratch card, flutter on the horses or a go on the slots, three quarters of us gamble at some point. You only need count the number of betting shops on the high street to see how incredibly popular it is. 
Every year, the industry pockets a whopping £14 billion from obliging punters every year – a staggering sum which dwarfs the total takings from every farm and fishery in the land. Betting is booming and most people who dabble do it as ‘just a bit of fun’ and are fully in control. But for some, gambling is a game of very high stakes that threatens their very existence.
Behind closed doors in the UK today, There are growing numbers of lives consumed by gambling addiction. Today there are nearly half a million Britons that are ‘problem gamblers’ who are compelled to place ‘just another bet’, destroying their finances, work life, mental health and relationships in the process. Last week 888 Holdings, which owns a popular online betting platform, was fined nearly £8 million for not protecting vulnerable customers. Given the devastation that problem gambling has, these are pretty low-value chips. The average problem gambler has notched up over £17,000 in personal debt and it is an addiction that is ruining more lives than heroin.
It is easy for us non-gamblers to label gaming addicts as weak-willed or dim-witted, but neither is necessarily true. Problem gamblers are almost powerless to stop because their brains have become rewired to enslave them to the same chemicals that shackle drug addicts and alcoholics. 
The euphoric wave of satisfaction that comes with a cash win is thanks to a gush of the feel-good hormone dopamine within the deepest, most emotional parts of the brain. It feels blissful and the mind naturally wants more – especially if the rest of life seems otherwise lonely or stressful. Each satisfying ‘hit’ is well worth paying for and, for the gambler, it gradually becomes nothing to do with the money – but is all about the thrill.
Technology has made betting easier and more enticing than ever before. It is becoming ever-more socially acceptable, with betting companies sponsoring sports teams and mainstream television shows and offering ‘free’ cash on daytime TV commercials and internet ads. 
Slot machines and online bingo and poker games are often programmed to make losses feel like wins. They drip-feed players with small ‘hits’ of little wins, often accompanied by a fanfare of sounds and flashing lights, to conceal how much money is actually being lost. The feel-good chemicals keep squirting and it feels easy to keep pumping in the coins. But it is the ‘near-misses’ that are an even stronger addictive noose. 
Like watching England lose to Germany on penalties (again), an ‘almost win’ is agonising – but strangely exhilarating. So when three out of four bells line up in the one-armed bandit or the scratch card reveals two out of the three treasure chests, you are both disappointed and excited – while feeling that you are inching closer to the heavenly jackpot. (You obviously aren’t any closer as each spin of the wheel is identical). Then throw in a variety of choices or complex betting options, such as a ‘Yankie’, ‘Four-Fold Accumulator’ or ‘Lucky 15’, and the illusion of control can fast become a slippery slope into thinking you can work out the path to a winning nirvana.
Gambling is termed ‘entertainment’ by the industry and there’s no doubt that it can be fun. Most people are in full control, but we all need to be savvy to how quickly the mind can get hooked. Be aware that: If you’re gambling in secret, trying to win back losses by betting more, stealing or lying for money, or being preoccupied with thoughts of the next bet then it is time to seek help. Most addicts live in denial but trying to break free while doing in the darkness is one game that you’re unlikely to win.
If you are concerned about your gambling, or the gambling of friends or family, contact the national problem gambling charity GamCare’s helpline on 0845 6000 133 or visit www.gamcare.org.uk for confidential support, advice and free counselling.

Dr Stu