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Women and Addiction

Addiction can wreak havoc on anyone’s life, whether they are struggling with a dependence on alcohol or drugs. However, the experience of women with addiction issues is distinct from that of men. This guide addresses those differences, from the types of drugs women are most likely to become dependent on to the therapeutic environments that are most effective for helping women get clean. Continue reading for more information.

Addiction can wreak havoc on anyone’s life, whether they are struggling with a dependence on alcohol or drugs. However, the experience of women with addiction issues is distinct from that of men. This guide addresses those differences, from the types of drugs women are most likely to become dependent on to the therapeutic environments that are most effective for helping women get clean. Continue reading for more information.

By the Numbers: Women and Addiction

In 2013,12.9% of women (15.8 million) used illicit drugs.

(Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse)

4.6 million women, or 3.8% abused prescription drugs in 2013.

(Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse)

Between 1999 and 2010, around, 48,000 women died from an overdose of prescription painkillers.

(Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

12.5%
of women binge drink. Among them, 24.4 percent of binge drinking women are 18 to 24 years old.

(Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

In 2010, approximately 30%30 percent of people admitted into treatment programs for substance abuse were women.

(Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)

Risk Factors of Addiction for Women

The female experience can be complicated, and as a result, women may experience drug and alcohol use in different ways. The following are some risk factors that may cause women to develop an addiction.

Mental illness

Women who suffer from mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, may self-medicate by using prescription or illicit drugs. As they increasingly use substances to numb the pain that comes with mental illness, they may develop a dependency on them—which will result in the need to get treatment for both the addiction and the mental illness.

Trauma

Women who have suffered trauma from sexual, emotional, or physical abuse may use drugs to cope with their experiences. Since they may feel too ashamed to get help for these issues, women might abuse alcohol and drugs to deal with their emotions. Also, if they’re experiencing flashbacks or constant feelings of guilt, the use of these substances may become a daily part of their routine to drown out the painful noise in their head.

Body image

Many women have something about their body that they don’t like and if thoughts about these perceived flaws are constant, they may use drugs to stop worrying about them. In addition, women who need to lose weight may start using stimulants to shed extra pounds, which can lead to an addiction to these drugs.

Life stressors

Women often struggle with the expectation that they can do it all, so when the daily stresses of handling career obligations while raising a family become too much, they may use alcohol and drugs to relieve this tension and feel better about themselves.

Romantic relationships

Women are deeply affected by their romantic relationships, so when there’s trouble in that area, they may start drinking or using drugs to escape their romance problems. Whether they are having a rough patch in a current relationship, going through a divorce, or dealing with the pain of a partner’s death, some women may find the stress too difficult to bear without help from alcohol or drugs. Also, women who are involved with someone that has addiction issues may also adopt those behaviors to feel close to that person.

Hormones

When people use alcohol and drugs, the body experiences a certain pleasure that those with addiction problems seek to recreate every time they use these substances. For women, this feeling can be intensified because of monthly hormone fluctuations and the fact that their bodies are generally more sensitive to the effects of drugs and alcohol.

Substances To Which Women Commonly Become Addicted

What Substances Can Rehab Treat?

Rehab can help treat a variety of addictions, such as:

  • Adderall
  • Ativan
  • Codeine
  • Marijauna
  • Nicotine
  • Percocet
  • Vicodin
  • Alcohol
  • Cocaine
  • Klonopin
  • Methamphetamine
  • OxyContin
  • Valium
  • Xanax

Gender and Addiction: The Difference Between Men and Women

Popular culture tells us that men are from Mars and women are from Venus because of how different they are when it comes to dealing with interpersonal relationships. There are many noticeable differences between men and women, and when it comes to addiction, the sexes are indeed worlds apart. The following are some areas where women and men differ in terms of addiction to drugs and alcohol.

  • Drug Use
  • Biological Factors
  • Sociocultural Factors
  • ● Initiating drug use

    Males are more likely to start using drugs at a young age than females. In fact, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 11.5 percent of males aged 12 to 17 used illegal drugs, compared to 7.3 percent of females in the same age group. When it comes to specific drugs, males in this age group were more likely to use marijuana, cocaine, and hallucinogens than their female counterparts, with the specific percentages breaking down as follows:

    • Marijuana: 9.7 of males, 5.6 percent of females
    • Cocaine: 0.8 of males, 0.4 percent of females
    • Hallucinogens: 0.7 of males, 0.3 percent of females
    ● Types of drugs

    While men are about three times more likely to abuse marijuana than women, many more females are using the drug as it becomes legal in states around the country. Women are more likely to become addicted to prescription painkillers—like OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet—than men. However, with stimulants like meth and cocaine, men and women become addicted at equal rates.

    ● Selling and buying.

    Just as men and women use drugs differently, the way they tend to acquire drugs tends to vary. Since men are more likely to sell drugs than women, they control the flow of substances. As a result, it’s somewhat easier for men to buy drugs and women may become reliant on the men in their lives to get their supply.

  • Since women are generally smaller and have less water in their body than men, the Psychiatric Clinics of North America journal says that women are likely to get more intoxicated than men when they consume the same amount of alcohol. Similarly, illicit drugs tend to cause more damage to women’s bodies because of their size and the fact that doses are not adjusted to account for the difference in stature.

    According to the journal Hepatology, women’s bodies have a lower amount of the enzyme that metabolizes alcohol than men’s bodies. As a result, the threshold for intoxication is lower in women and alcohol stays in their system longer.

    Trends in Pharmacological Sciences reports that the estrogen in women’s bodies helps to awaken the pleasure signals in the brain, which can make it easier for them to develop an addiction.

    According to Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, women who are ovulating are more likely to feel high when using cocaine than women who are in other stages of their menstrual cycle. Also, ovulating women are more likely to relapse after getting clean than those who are not.

    A study published in Biological Psychiatry found that when men drink alcohol, more dopamine is released in their bodies than it is in women’s bodies. As a result, they have increased feelings of satisfaction and reward when drinking.

  • According to the Archives of General Psychiatry, men are more likely to engage in smoking because they like the physical effects of nicotine, while women are more likely to do it for social bonding purposes. Similarly, women who live with an addicted partner may also pick up an addiction for social reasons, the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse finds.

    Society perceives men as being impulsive, dangerous, and more prone to taking risks than women. This can result in them taking drugs and alcohol, or escalating the use of substances, in order to align themselves with the male gender norm. Also, this perception of men can prevent them from recognizing that they even have an addiction problem.

Addiction and Pregnancy

Pregnant women who abuse drugs or alcohol can put their babies at significant risk for a number of problems, including birth defects, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, low birth weight, neonatal abstinence syndrome, and delays in physical and psychological development. In some cases, substance abuse can cause premature birth or miscarriage.

Older Women and Addiction

When women reach middle age, they are more likely to suffer from chronic pain for which they are prescribed pain relievers like Fentanyl, Oxycodone, and Percocet. In addition, chronic pain may cause women to be given high doses of these drugs and get prescriptions for long periods of time—factors that can increase the likelihood of developing an addiction.

Also, according to research conducted by the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, more and more women over the age of 60 are binge drinking. Between 1997 and 2014, the amount of women in this age group who regularly binged on alcohol increased two percent annually.

Addiction Treatment for Women

The relationship that women have to addiction differs from that of men and as a result, drug and alcohol treatment is different for the sexes. This section addresses the specific experiences of women in regard to treatment, including the qualities they should look for in a rehab center, the barriers that may preclude them from getting the help they need, and the treatment approaches that are the most effective.

Barriers to Treatment

Getting treatment for addiction can be more complicated for women for numerous reasons. The following are some of the barriers women with addiction may face that can prevent them from going to rehab.

Family

Women who want to seek treatment for alcohol and drug addiction may have difficulty finding a facility that will allow them to bring their children, or one that will provide child care. Also, women often have concerns that their children will be taken away from them when they enter rehab, or will not be cared for properly in their absence. And when women are able to get adequate care for their children when they’re in rehab, they may have concerns about participating in aftercare programs because of the time it will take away from their family responsibilities.

Stigma

Women generally face a greater stigma for having addiction issues than men—especially if they are mothers or currently pregnant. As a result of public perception, women may not seek treatment because they’re too afraid to admit they have a problem.

Relationships

Women living with addiction tend to have romantic relationships
with people who have the same problem. Also, they may be involved in co-dependent relationships with people who are not living with addiction. Either way, this creates a disincentive to enter a rehab program.

Financial

Women are less likely to have the financial resources to afford treatment out of pocket, especially if they are single mothers. Similarly, women tend to lack health insurance that will cover the cost of rehab.

Mental health

Women who have mental health problems—like anxiety, eating disorders, and depression—in addition to addiction issues may choose to get help for their mental health conditions instead of their addiction. Also, health professionals often do not identify women’s addiction disorders and instead recommend mental health services for these patients.

The Most Effective Treatment Methods for Women

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information of the National Institutes of Health, women respond best to addiction treatment that incorporates supportive and collaborative approaches. In the collaborative approach, women work with therapists who create a nurturing, supportive, and safe environment for them to heal. In order to create this environment, therapists handle their patients with empathy, compassion, and mutual respect.

Similarly, a collaborative approach to treating addiction to alcohol and drugs is based on the idea that treatment should address the goals that are important to the patient—such as finding stable housing, improving relationships with children and partners, and entering or advancing in a career—while providing a constructive, challenging, supportive, and optimistic environment. This allows patients to build their confidence as they address their addiction issues.

In order to provide these types of treatment to women, rehabilitation centers may offer psychotherapy, which can be conducted individually or in a group setting, as well as support groups. In addition, facilities offer medication-based treatment as needed, which is designed to help get drugs and alcohol out of patients’ system and ease the pain of withdrawal.

What Women Should Look for in a Rehab Facility

Women respond to addiction differently, so they have different needs when they enter treatment. In order to get treatment that best meets their unique needs, women can ask the following questions when considering what rehab facility to enter.

Questions to Ask When Choosing a Rehab Facility
  • Are patients’ partners incorporated into the treatment process?
  • Does the facility provide child care services for patients?
  • Does the facility offer prenatal care for pregnant patients?
  • Does the facility provide treatment for co-occurring disorders, like depression?
  • Is trauma caused by abuse addressed during treatment?
  • Will treatment address how addiction has affected patients’ children and partners?
  • Are the specific relationship experiences of women addressed during treatment?
  • Do the treatment specialists understand the health issues that are unique to women, such as pregnancy and menopause?
  • Is the facility a mixed-gender environment?
  • Do staff members understand the specific physical responses women have to substances?

Q&A With Addictions Expert Christopher Gerhart

Lisa Bahar (www.lisabahar.com) is a licensed psychotherapist located in Newport Beach, California. Lisa works with women in recovery and is a part of the Safe Harbor Treatment Center for Women, a program designed for the specific needs of women seeking sobriety.

  • What is the addiction treatment process like for women and how does it differ from men’s experience?

    In many cases trauma and what is “driving the addiction” may be defined as some kind of sexual, emotional, physical abuse and the use of substances is masking the unresolved issues of the past. In many cases, women are seeking to heal the wound of an abusive past by seeking out a male companion that creates the dynamic of the perpetrator—for example wanting to please him, feeling confused as to why being abused feels like love when the cycle of violence occurs. Sometimes a woman will get high for the first time with their abuser and correlates the euphoria with “love,” which can be addictive to him and the substance. Psychotherapy and trauma therapy may be the primary focus of treatment as the client is gaining sobriety. She also benefits from life skills or coping skills, including assertion and learning how to say no to unwanted requests. She is encouraged to practice and learn how to accept the unhealed parts as she learns how to cope effectively while balancing self-care to maintain sobriety.

  • In what ways can a woman’s family participate in her treatment?

    Being willing is key, although resistance is understandable. Accepting that change and acceptance are balanced. Learning how to ask for help, learning how to accept help, and being aware that she is not alone. Community is essentially, she may lack trust of other women and men, learning how to listen and foster a stronger inner voice that will guide her. Accepting her body is also essential. Addiction has an effect on the body and she may begin to feel nourished but in her mind not thin. Learning how to love her body and herself is a skill she needs to learn.

  • What should women look for in a rehab center?

    A treatment center that has specific awareness of the treatment of women. Having an effective program that provides her a well-rounded basis to learn how to take care of herself—for example, EMDR, psychotherapy, twelve step program or a sobriety program, nutrition and body image, love addiction and codependency, activities that are nurturing such as equine or pet therapy, exercise, mindfulness, spirituality and guided imagery, as well as art therapy. She can get a sampling of these in a program designed for her specific needs and care. The goal is to keep them a part of her lifestyle.

  • What are the advantages of women getting help from a facility that caters to female patients?

    Women understand women, also the tendency to distract with men and coed can create an additional issue. Women and men are seeking to fill an emptiness that the drug provided and masked.

  • How important is aftercare for women who have completed a rehab program?

    One hundred percent essential; it is all about the aftercare. This is a lifestyle change, therefore, commit to one day at a time, but realize there is no vacation.

What is the addiction treatment process like for women and how does it differ from men’s experience?

In many cases trauma and what is “driving the addiction” may be defined as some kind of sexual, emotional, physical abuse and the use of substances is masking the unresolved issues of the past. In many cases, women are seeking to heal the wound of an abusive past by seeking out a male companion that creates the dynamic of the perpetrator—for example wanting to please him, feeling confused as to why being abused feels like love when the cycle of violence occurs. Sometimes a woman will get high for the first time with their abuser and correlates the euphoria with “love,” which can be addictive to him and the substance. Psychotherapy and trauma therapy may be the primary focus of treatment as the client is gaining sobriety. She also benefits from life skills or coping skills, including assertion and learning how to say no to unwanted requests. She is encouraged to practice and learn how to accept the unhealed parts as she learns how to cope effectively while balancing self-care to maintain sobriety.

In what ways can a woman’s family participate in her treatment?

Being willing is key, although resistance is understandable. Accepting that change and acceptance are balanced. Learning how to ask for help, learning how to accept help, and being aware that she is not alone. Community is essentially, she may lack trust of other women and men, learning how to listen and foster a stronger inner voice that will guide her. Accepting her body is also essential. Addiction has an effect on the body and she may begin to feel nourished but in her mind not thin. Learning how to love her body and herself is a skill she needs to learn.

What should women look for in a rehab center?

A treatment center that has specific awareness of the treatment of women. Having an effective program that provides her a well-rounded basis to learn how to take care of herself—for example, EMDR, psychotherapy, twelve step program or a sobriety program, nutrition and body image, love addiction and codependency, activities that are nurturing such as equine or pet therapy, exercise, mindfulness, spirituality and guided imagery, as well as art therapy. She can get a sampling of these in a program designed for her specific needs and care. The goal is to keep them a part of her lifestyle.

What are the advantages of women getting help from a facility that caters to female patients?

Women understand women, also the tendency to distract with men and coed can create an additional issue. Women and men are seeking to fill an emptiness that the drug provided and masked.

How important is aftercare for women who have completed a rehab program?

One hundred percent essential; it is all about the aftercare. This is a lifestyle change, therefore, commit to one day at a time, but realize there is no vacation.