While addiction doesn’t discriminate against gender, there’s no doubt that substance use disorder affects women differently than men. Unfortunately, when it comes to women’s addiction statistics, the information is limited. After all, most addiction treatments and researches are centered around men only. Let’s explore women’s addiction statistics and what these differences mean for addiction treatment, recovery, and ongoing sobriety.
Understanding Sex & Gender Differences in Substance Use Disorders
Women face particular struggles when it comes to a substance use disorder. Scientists found that women who use drugs have issues with hormones, menstrual cycles, fertility, breastfeeding, and even menopause. Other reasons include fighting exhaustion, coping with pain, or self-medicating mental health problems.
Here are some basic facts about women and substance use disorders; in most cases, women tend to:
- Use smaller amounts for less time before they become addicted
- Are more likely to relapse after treatment
- Are more sensitive to the effects of some drugs if they take sex hormones
- Experience more physical effects
- Show more significant brain changes
- Are more likely to visit the emergency room or die from an overdose
- More likely to experience panic attacks, anxiety, or depression
Even though historically, men report higher incidences of substance abuse and dependence, women are closing the gap. Today, young women and middle-aged women have almost an equal percentage of drug and alcohol abuse concerns, as do men.
What is Telescoping?
The term refers to the accelerated progression from substance use and the onset of dependence and first admission to treatment. The phenomenon is part of gender and substance-use disorders research. Most studies see a telescoping effect among women for opioids, cannabis, and alcohol.
When women enter substance abuse treatment, they often present a more severe clinical profile, which means they struggle with medical, behavioral, and psychological problems. Even though they used less of the substance and have been using the substance for less time than men, they experience an accelerated progression of the disorder.
Triggers for Drug Use in Women
Substance use disorder always starts with someone using drugs to fill a void. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), overmedication is often the main reason for addiction in women. The study points the finger at doctors and women themselves for the overabundance of chemical intervention.
However, most of the critical triggers for drug use in women are all mental health-related, including:
- Feelings of loneliness
- Extreme fatigue
- Loss of self-esteem
- Body-image issues
Common Reasons for Continuous Drug Use in Women
Of course, no one sets their path to fall for drug addiction. However, many variables play a significant role in the transition from drug use to drug dependency, and eventually, drug addiction.
According to the CDC, around 50 million people in the US struggle with chronic pain. However, almost 19.6 million people in the US struggle with high-impact chronic pain, of which the majority are women.
Overall, women are more likely to struggle with chronic pain from:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Back pain
Opioid pain relievers are, unfortunately, the most common treatment plan for chronic pain. Although prescribed for acute pain after surgery or injury, women receive opioids for things like tooth extractions or migraines. In general, women develop addictions faster than men, and opioids are highly addictive substances that can lead to a substance use disorder.
Unfortunately, prescription drugs are easy to access in most communities, and most doctors won’t hesitate to prescribe them. Often, women find themselves mixing opioids with other substances like alcohol to enhance their effects.
Many individuals struggling with addiction also have a co-occurring mental health condition. Women suffer from mental illnesses at alarming rates, with over 29 million women in the US diagnosed in one year, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Overall, women are twice as likely than men to struggle with:
- Panic disorders
- Generalized anxiety
Additionally, women are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide. Plus, when it comes to eating disorders, 85% anorexia or bulimia patients are women, as are 65% of binge-eating disorder patients.
Trauma is incredibly prevalent among women; estimates say one in five women will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime. The most common trauma that women report is sexual assault or child sexual abuse. One in three women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime.
Researchers compare these traumatic experiences with the same level of trauma male Vietnam veterans experienced. They are labeling as severe as PTSD, which can cause:
- Sleep pattern disturbances
- Loss of memory of the event
All of these side effects can prompt substance misuse to self-medicate. Women and men alike tend to sort of abuse to mask PTSD symptoms. This is why dual-diagnosis in substance abuse treatment is paramount to address underlying mental health conditions.
Differences in Addiction Type
Although research about women’s substance abuse remains limited, various studies already point to differences. Different drug addictions have mixed effects on both men and women; however, these specific ones leave women at higher susceptibility.
- More likely to engage in nonmedical use of opioids
- Most say their drug use is the result of pressure from social circles or sex partners
- More likely to share needles but also practice lower risk-behaviors like carrying clean syringes
- Experience shorter interval periods between casual drinking, alcohol abuse, and treatment
- More likely to consume alcohol for emotional or stress factors
- More likely to have co-occurring psychological disorders
- Majority of pregnant women seek help for methamphetamines addiction
- More likely to be vulnerable to the effects to stimulants
- Experience greater high and hallucinations
- Prevalent among women with severe premenstrual syndrome symptoms or premenstrual dysphoric disorder
- More affected on neuropsychological processes than men
- Enter treatment faster than the majority of men cannabis-users
Differences in Substance Use Disorder Treatment
Women progress very differently than men when seeking substance abuse treatment. Women often use substances for less time than men before they enter treatment. Withdrawal symptoms are usually more intense for women. In some cases, medication-assisted therapies don’t work the same for women.
Women Progress in Treatment Faster than Men
Physiological differences accelerate the progression of addiction in men, as opposed to men. For example, women process alcohol and other addictive substances differently than men’s bodies. Women have fewer stomach enzymes and more fatty tissue than men; thus, their bodies absorb and breakdown these substances differently than men.
However, women are more likely to suffer addiction side effects like organ damage and overdose. Women also experience shorter intervals between their first signs of addiction and treatment.
Barriers for Getting Help Are Different
Unfortunately, the stigma that comes with addiction intensifies for women — mother, in particular. Shame, denial, and fear often prevent women from seeking help for drug addiction. Other barriers to help from women include child care responsibilities, lower wages, fear of losing custody of children, lack of access to resources, and even feelings of unworthiness.
These are all societal factors that create more significant barriers for women to seek help. Most of the time, women will do their best to conceal their substance abuse struggles and try to manage their addictions on their own, often experiencing life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.
The Importance of Gender-Specific Treatment
These differences are more evidence that gender-specific programs are vital for successful drug addiction treatment. Treatment plans for women must analyze co-occurring disorders such as eating disorders, trauma, hormonal concerns, and mental health issues.
Now, this is not to say these cause addiction. But, they’re still relevant and instrumental patterns that can fuel someone’s addiction.
Women Respond Better to Support-based Treatment
While women-specific research is limited, preliminary evidence supports treatment programs based on support. Women respond better to self-reliance building, empowerment versus compliance, and self-care versus caring for others. While treatment programs should be considered on a case-by-case basis, most women respond positively to cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Differences in Recovery Struggles for Women
Since women move faster through the recovery process, they tend to complete or leave treatment sooner than men. However, women’s brains are wired differently than men. Addiction treatment can help them navigate their triggers, struggles such as body-image concerns, improving mood, reducing sexual inhibitions, and so on, are tricky to channel. All of these make women more prone to relapse.
Ongoing Therapy Needs Are Different
Although women are more likely to have shorter treatment times, they’re also more likely to seek guidance after treatment. Women tend to enroll in more aftercare or long-term recovery programs in the hopes of maintaining long-term sobriety. Aftercare, in particular, can provide additional tools and skills in relapse prevention.
Get Help Today
It’s time to get rid of the stigma associated with substance abuse treatment — for both men and women. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, get the help you need today. At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, we offer gender-specific treatment programs designed with women’s unique needs in mind.
Talk to one of our admission specialists today and discuss with our addiction therapists our treatment plans. Choose from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), group therapy, family recovery treatments, and intensive outpatient programs that give you the flexibility to stay at home. Discuss the various substance abuse and mental health services available and let our therapists guide you in choosing the right treatment plan for your needs.
Yes, the journey to recovery can be a bumpy one, but it will be the most rewarding path you’ll ever walk. Contact us today to seek treatment and leave drug and alcohol addiction in your past.