One of the biggest myths surrounding drug abuse is that men get addicted more often than women. While that may have been true in the past, it’s no longer the case.
That gap is narrowing, and it’s now estimated that about 4.5. million women struggle with a substance abuse disorder (SUD).
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Women who are struggling with addiction face some unique challenges compared to their male counterparts.
Issues related to pregnancy and postpartum depression may impact women in active addiction.
Sometimes addicted women also have experienced sexual abuse, domestic violence, and other traumas that may impact both their development of an addiction and their process of recovery.
Because these factors tend to be more unique to women, finding effective ways to treat women in active addiction is often different than methods that might work for men.
Challenges Often Unique to Women with Addiction
Pregnancy is unique to women who are dealing with addiction. This can also be a very loaded circumstance for women who are also addicted to substances. For example, the use of drugs and alcohol tends to impair judgment or can lead to situations that might result in unintended pregnancy.
Women who are addicted and pregnant may not be in a position to seek medical care for various reasons, including financial instability. Plus, the fetus may be jeopardized if a woman tries to quit substances, particularly alcohol, cold turkey. Finally, infants born to mothers who are addicted often suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) and other health complications.
Rates of women in active addiction who seek treatment who have also experienced physical and sexual abuse are often as high as 55 percent to 99 percent. There tends to be an insidious relationship between abuse and addiction among women. Often the abuse starts early in childhood. Domestic violence is also prevalent among women seeking SUD treatment.
Researchers have found a connection between the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle and difficulty with addiction treatment. This is the phase of the menstrual cycle when ovulation occurs. Because of this, it’s recommended that women begin withdrawal treatment during the follicular stage instead. Estrogen levels are higher during the follicular phase, and this seems to help alleviate feelings of anxiety and lead to an overall better success rate.
Several kinds of co-occurring disorders appear frequently in women who are struggling with addiction.
Studies have shown that the rates of co-occurring mood and anxiety disorders are higher among women. It’s not clear why these rates are higher, but it does indicate that there may be a greater need for managing other health conditions during addiction treatment for women.
Women are more likely to be diagnosed with eating disorders than men. In fact, eating disorders are two to three times higher in women than men and eating disorders have been found to co-occur in substance abuse in about 40 percent of women.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is another co-occurring disorder commonly seen in women who have a substance abuse disorder. This is because so many of these women have also suffered as a result of physical and sexual abuse.
Women often experience greater social stigma around addiction. As a result, some women, particularly women who are also mothers, may not seek help for addiction treatment.
Income limitations and the need to care for children may impact a woman’s ability to get treatment.
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Why Drug Treatment for Women Should Be Gender-Specific
Drugs and alcohol can have different effects of different people. In many ways, these differences are easy to spot between men and women. Because women face different challenges with substance use, their needs must be met with unique treatment options. According to The National Institute of Drug Addiction (NIDA), women often report reasons for using drugs that are unique to reasons men usually give.
They say, “…women themselves describe unique reasons for using drugs, including controlling weight, fighting exhaustion, coping with pain, and self-treating mental health problems.”
Because of the different biological factors in men and women, chemical substances can affect women in ways that are different than men. Factors like relative weight and size, sex-specific hormones, menstruation, menopause, and pregnancy may all play a role in a person’s response to a chemical substance. NIDA alsoreports differences in the way women process drugs and alcohol that can be a significant factor in the development of addiction and are relevant to overcoming addiction.
Differences can be as follows:
- Women may become addicted after using smaller amounts of certain drugs than men.
- Women respond to drugs differently in ways that cause them to have more drug cravings and a higher likelihood of relapse.
- Some studies suggest that certain sex hormones can make women more sensitive than men to some drugs. Some suggest that menstrual cycles can also exasperate drug cravings and relapse potential.
- Drugs may affect the heart and blood vessels of women more intensely.
- Women may experience changes in the brain that are unique to the changes men experience, after drug use.
- Women are more likely to experience serious overdose effects that result in death or hospitalization.
Biological factors aren’t the only ways that women have to face unique challenges in addiction and addiction treatment. Social factors play a major role as well. Women are much more likely to be the victims of severe domestic violence with25 percent of women and 14 percent of men being the victims sever physical violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Abuse and trauma are risk-factors for addiction and women who have been the victims of domestic violence are at increased risk for a substance use disorder.
Like men, women may develop a substance use disorder after a divorce, loss of child custody, or the death of a partner. Traumatic or challenging events can trigger addiction or mental health disorders. There may also be a stronger link between the abuse of certain substances and co-occurring anxiety or depressive disorders.
The Dreaded 13th Step
Another aspect of struggle in a woman’s fight to recover from drug addiction is the dreaded 13th step. The 13th step is the concept of a person in a 12-step fellowship with a year or more of clean time preying on the newcomer. Unfortunately, in such a program, some are more unstable than others and may scare a newcomer—deemed as fresh meat—out of a fellowship and recovery as a whole.
Individuals who pursue the newcomer can drive a naïve and emotionally sensitive girl to dive into the cycle of a toxic relationship and/or get used for sexual activities instead of getting the help and guidance they need. Thirteenth-stepping is not synonymous with men; women can 13th step as well. This common occurrence in the rooms of such fellowships as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) has led many females to flee the program, which often leads to relapse.
Despite this flaw in these fellowships, not everyone is there to prey on the newcomer. In fact, many people in these fellowships are there to work the 12 steps, stay clean, and to support and help others to live a happier way of life free from drugs and character defects.
The solution to this problem is for new women, and women in general, to stick with other women—or people they are not attracted to who are also not attracted to them—who actually work the recovery program. There are actually women’s groups that can help a newcomer female settle into their new life of recovery. Over time, it does get easier for a woman to weed out who is there to grow and stay clean from who is there to stay clean and take advantage of another person.
Effective Ways to Treat Women in Active Addiction
In the not-too-distant past, addiction research focused primarily on men. The thinking was that similar factors would apply to women. It turns out that this isn’t necessarily the case.
In the past decade, researchers have begun paying a lot more attention to women and addiction, and they have realized there are quite a few differences in not only how addiction affects men and women, but also in the efficacy of addiction treatment services. What works for men doesn’t necessarily work for women.
Health care professionals now realize certain gender differences need to be considered both when evaluating and treating women for substance use disorder (SUD).
A few key considerations to help provide effective treatment to women with an addiction are:
Child Care Resources
The majority of women who enter addiction treatment are also mothers. Because women often carry the primary responsibility for childcare and many women are single mothers, incorporating childcare or resources for childcare into an addiction treatment program can improve the odds of women not only participating in the program but also being successful at maintaining their recovery.
As with childcare, women typically are burdened with the bulk of home care and other family responsibilities, such as caretaking for other relatives. Again, if resources are in place to help women meet these needs while they are undergoing treatment, a great burden can be lifted allowing them to participate fully in treatment and have improved odds for successful recovery.
Gender-Specific Treatment Programs
Because many women seeking treatment for addiction have also suffered physical and sexual violence, gender-specific treatment programs can provide a safe space for women to come together and therapeutically work through these specific emotional and psychological traumas.
Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders
Given the research showing that many women in treatment are often also dealing with additional health conditions, programs that are designed to manage co-occurring conditions can be more effective at treating women with SUDs.
Addressing Concerns about Weight Gain
Because of cultural pressures on appearance, women often struggle with body image concerns in addition to addiction and other health conditions. Women who are trying to quit smoking will sometimes become frustrated or concerned about quitting because of weight gain. It can be advantageous to help female patients with these concerns see how the benefits of quitting will outweigh potential weight gain.
Meanwhile, incorporating other healthy behaviors, such as cutting down on sugar and processed foods and encouraging exercise, can also help to keep weight gain at bay as well as boost energy and mood.
Parenting Classes and Job Training
Parenting can be stressful. Learning effective parenting techniques can help women not only be better parents but also manage their stress levels and help to avoid relapse as a result. Job training expands opportunities for women to find gainful employment and provide for themselves and their children.
Behavioral Couples Therapy
Often, women who are dealing with SUDs may also be dealing with difficult domestic relationships, or the addiction may be a cause of strain in a relationship. Behavioral couples therapy can provide an important opportunity for women in treatment for SUDs and their partners to learn valuable communication skills and perhaps heal old traumas to help pave the way for a more successful recovery and stronger, healthier relationship moving forward.
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There are key gender-specific differences that influence the reasons women become addicted to substances and how addiction affects them. It’s important that health care practitioners are aware of these differences and consider them when treating female patients.
Effective addiction treatment for women must take into account social and environmental factors that are often specific to women, including childcare, physical and sexual abuse, and societal pressures and stigmas around body image and motherhood.
If you or someone you know is battling addiction, don’t wait to start on your road to recovery today. Call the addiction specialists at Ocean Breeze Recovery at 844-685-8330 to learn more about your treatment options and what you can do to start your treatment process today.
Greenfield, Shelly F. et al. (2010, June) “Substance Abuse in Women.” In Psychiatric Clinics of North America. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
Roy, Lipi (2018, March 19) How Women Experience Addiction Differently Than Men. from https://www.forbes.com
Sack, David (2017, April 18) 6 Myths about Women and Addiction. from https://www.psychologytoday.com
(2018, August) Substance Use in Women. from https://www.drugabuse.gov
(2010, January) Addiction in Women. from https://www.health.harvard.edu