Since the beginning of the pandemic, many popular types of gambling-related events such as football, horse racing, and other sporting events have been put on hold. In combination with the immense financial pressure that the pandemic has placed on most people, those who enjoy or are accustomed to gambling, and even those who are new to it, have turned to online gambling and trading apps to earn extra money, which, initially, seems easy. Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy as it seems making money trading, and many people have found themselves addicted.

Awareness is growing around the issues that can arise from trading, namely gambling addiction, major financial loss, and even suicide. There are countless apps available in which even those completely new to the world of trading can create an account and gain access to complex financial products such as options and futures trading, products previously only available to those with a career in finance. While professionals in trade are taught the skills and techniques necessary to manage risks, amateur traders have a tendency to go ‘all in’ without sufficient risk assessment, often resulting in loss. Amateur trading can soon become a gambling habit when a person becomes accustomed to the pleasure of success, faces difficult emotions from failure, and spends increasingly greater amounts of time and money on the behaviour.

‘These apps have given everyday people, who have little to no experience in finance, a chance to manage and trade stocks and bitcoin’, says Medium’s Geeta Patel.1

A recent suicide brought some awareness to the issues surrounding the rise of so many free, zero-commission trading apps. A young American reportedly committed suicide by jumping in from of a train, apparently because he believed that he was in debt to a total of $730,000 to the free online trading app he was using.2 The debt was not real; but the user was believed it was, which led him to take to his own life.

When trading becomes a problem, i.e. when it has a negative impact on multiple areas of one’s life, from their financial and social well-being to their emotional, mental, and behavioural health, a person may be known as a ‘pathological trader’. Some of the proposed criteria for pathological trading include3:

  • Increasingly greater amounts of money allocated to trade
  • Tolerance to the pleasurable effects of succeeding in smaller trades
  • Irritability and restlessness when attempts to cut down or stop trading are made
  • Unsuccessful attempts at cutting down or quitting
  • Loss of interest in hobbies outside of trading
  • Engagement in trading during times of stress, anxiety, or depression
  • ‘Chasing losses’ – returning to trading immediately after a loss
  • Lies and secrecy around trading-related behaviour
  • Jeopardising jobs, relationships, or career opportunities because of trading habits

The immense pressure that has been placed on people around the world as a result of the closure of many businesses means that many of us are dealing with significant stress. Other than the obvious financial problems, global mental health has been impacted. Changes such as an uncertain economy, physical distancing, and being legally required to stay at home, has meant that people are more vulnerable to addictions than ever.

Addiction and poor mental health in general have risen significantly since the pandemic began4, which means that as a population we are more vulnerable to maladaptive behaviour and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Trading is a potential amplifier of our tendency toward addiction and may further deteriorate our mental health. Many trading apps are designed to be visually stimulating and appeal to our brain’s reward centre. Some trading apps even feature an animated fireworks display when a new trade has been made, leading such trading apps to be accused of gamifying the trading experience. By gamifying the experience it becomes more appealing to continue to trade, even if outcomes do not look good. The joy of the win makes us want to bet or trade again, as is the nature of the brain’s reward system.5

Gambling and the Brain

Anything that has the capacity to change the way we feel has the potential to become addictive. Engaging in gambling and winning a bet can be likened to taking a substance and getting high. There is an exciting behaviour, and as a result the brain releases a high volume of dopamine. When this happens, the brain drives our behaviour to seek the same release, usually through the same means.6

Scientific research has found that gambling addiction and substance addiction share some similarities, which led to a change in the APA’s DSM-V. Addiction to gambling was once categorised as an impulse-control disorder, in the same category as kleptomania. Now it can be found under ‘addictive disorder’, in the same category as cocaine and heroin addiction.

Our neuroscientific understanding of how addiction works in the brain has significantly improved in recent decades. We know that within the brain are a series of circuits known as the brain’s ‘reward system’. This system incorporates multiple regions of the brain, such as those involved in memory, pleasure, movement, and motivation. By engaging in normal, life-positive activities such as eating, exercising, and sex, our brains release dopamine, a chemical responsible for pleasure and motivation, and satisfaction. This dopamine release is a signal that the activity we are engaged in is good and should be sought again.7

The thrill associated with trading and the joy of winning a trade, big or small, causes a dopamine release – one that may drive the gambler to repeat their behaviour8.

Some of us may be able to place a bet or trade stocks with no serious repercussions. Some people can lose or win, and move on. However, some of us are more prone to experiencing addiction due to a range of genetic and environmental factors and potential abnormalities in the brain’s reward system.9

Causes of Gambling Addiction

Why do some of us feel more attached to the outcomes of our bets, and feel so driven to place another? There are a number of risk factors outlined below that explore the potential causes of an individual’s gambling addiction.

Mental Health

Compulsive traders often also have co-occurring substance use disorder or problems, personality disorders, or other mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression.10 One’s mental health is a major influencing factor in how well a person can regulate their own emotional state, or how much they depend on external validation and regulation. If, due to poor mental health, perhaps even a past trauma, a person experiences persistent feelings of low self-worth or bases their sense of self-worth on external factors, then a trade loss will feel like a personal failure and may drive compensatory behaviour.

Medication

The side effect of some medications (known as dopamine agonists) is a tendency towards compulsive behaviour.11 This includes trading.

The Impact of Compulsive Gambling

Pathological trading can have a devastating effect on individuals and their families. It has contributed to countless lost assets, relationships, and jobs. Trading addiction can also be a deeply lonely and isolating experience. It is important to note that from here, trading addiction and gambling addiction will be used interchangeably.

Those who suffer from pathological gambling, or compulsive gambling disorder, are subject to:12

  • Stress-related conditions (hypertension, sleep deprivation, cardiovascular problems)
  • Exacerbation of major depression, anxiety disorders, or substance use disorders
  • Persistent feelings of guilt and shame
  • Strained relationships due to misplaced priorities and deception
  • Impaired decision making

How is Gambling Addiction Treated?

Methods used for the treatment of gambling disorders are similar to those used in the treatments of substance use disorders. This includes a several approaches to therapy, including:13

  • Psychoanalytic
  • Psychodynamic
  • Behavioural
  • Cognitive
  • Addiction-based and Multimodal

 

Psychoanalytic and psychodynamic treatment approaches are used to help the person suffering come to an understanding of the psychological phenomena underlying their compulsive behaviour.

Behavioural treatment approaches typically involve conditioning against the behaviour, known as aversion therapy.

In CBT, the compulsive gambler is educated and supported in their exploration of their own thoughts, and feelings, how those relate to gambling, and how they may be driving behaviour.

Addiction-based and Multimodal approaches offer a comprehensive combination of treatments most often used in clients with substance addiction. This may involve various individual and family therapies, inpatient rehabilitation, and tailored after-care.

1 Patel, Geeta. “The Rise In Trading Apps During A Pandemic”. Medium, https://medium.com/tech-alchemy/the-rise-in-trading-apps-during-a-pandemic-adb1bca88edf.

2 Egan, Matt. “Apparent Suicide By 20-Year-Old Robinhood Trader Who Saw A Negative $730,000 Balance Prompts App To Make Changes”. CNN, 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/06/19/business/robinhood-suicide-alex-kearns/index.html. Accessed 2 Nov 2020.

3 Guglielmo, Riccardo et al. “Is Pathological Trading an Overlooked Form of Addiction?.” Addiction & health vol. 8,3 (2016): 207-209.

4 Czeisler MÉ , Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1049–1057. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6932a1

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5 Horvath, A. Tom et al. “Drug Seeking And Cravings: Addictions’ Effect On The Brain’s Reward System – Addictions”. Centersite.Net, https://www.centersite.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=48375&cn=1408#:~:text=When%20the%20brain’s%20reward%20center,us%20with%20a%20pleasurable%20feeling. Accessed 3 Nov 2020.

6 Athalye, Vivek R. et al. “Evidence For A Neural Law Of Effect”. Science, vol 359, no. 6379, 2018, pp. 1024-1029. American Association For The Advancement Of Science (AAAS), doi:10.1126/science.aao6058. Accessed 3 Nov 2020.

7 Athalye, Vivek R. et al. “Evidence For A Neural Law Of Effect”. Science, vol 359, no. 6379, 2018, pp. 1024-1029. American Association For The Advancement Of Science (AAAS), doi:10.1126/science.aao6058. Accessed 3 Nov 2020.

8 Bergh, C., et al. “Altered Dopamine Function in Pathological Gambling.” Psychological Medicine, vol. 27, no. 2, 1997, pp. 473–475., doi:10.1017/S0033291796003789.

9 Taber, Katherine H. et al. “Neuroanatomy Of Dopamine: Reward And Addiction”. The Journal Of Neuropsychiatry And Clinical Neurosciences, vol 24, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-4. American Psychiatric Association Publishing, doi:10.1176/appi.neuropsych.24.1.1. Accessed 3 Nov 2020.

10 Ford, Madison, and Anders Håkansson. “Problem gambling, associations with comorbid health conditions, substance use, and behavioural addictions: Opportunities for pathways to treatment.” PloS one vol. 15,1 e0227644. 10 Jan. 2020, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0227644

11 Salas, Rachel E et al. “A case of compulsive behaviors observed in a restless legs syndrome patient treated with a dopamine agonist.” Sleep vol. 32,5 (2009): 587-8. doi:10.1093/sleep/32.5.587

12 National Research Council (US) Committee on the Social and Economic Impact of Pathological Gambling. Pathological Gambling: A Critical Review. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1999. 6, Treatment of Pathological Gamblers. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK230629/

13 National Research Council (US) Committee on the Social and Economic Impact of Pathological Gambling. Pathological Gambling: A Critical Review. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1999. 6, Treatment of Pathological Gamblers. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK230629/

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