Menu Close

Not Just a Guy Thing: How Addiction Affects Women Differently

We say all the time that addiction is different for everyone. Each individual person experiences addiction differently, the circumstances that led them to addiction are different, and the path out of it is different. So naturally, addiction is going to have different characteristics for both men and women. While there still aren’t any real generalizations that will hold true across the board, we can say that the differences between the sexes, both cultural and biological, result in different addiction experiences. A 2001 study on female addiction in the Journal of Substance Abuse found that (incarcerated) women who were enrolled in a substance abuse program tended to use harder drugs than men, use them more frequently than men, and had different motivations for their drug use than men. In addition, the background factors of addiction were stronger and more difficult for women to deal with. Physical and mental health were more at risk, and social environments posed much more of a challenge. Of course, that’s an older study and one that focuses specifically on federal prisoners. What about the everyday people who suffer from addiction? There isn’t as much research out there about gender differences in addiction as there should be because male drug abuse was considered the standard for studies until about the 1980s. But it is an area that is getting more attention in recent years, as female addiction continues to grow in prevalence. Let’s examine this in parts.

Drug Abuse vs. Drug Addiction in Women

In almost all age groups, males abuse drugs at a higher rate than females. It was true when they started studying this in the 1980s, and it holds true in nationwide surveys today, though the margin has narrowed considerably. The 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that about 12 percent of males ages 12 and up were using illegal drugs, versus about 7.3 percent of females the same age. What we have found is that males tend to start drug abuse earlier in life than women. Males are more likely to abuse tobacco and alcohol and are more likely to binge drink. However, there is a caveat here. While drug use tends to start earlier and is more frequent among men, women appear much more prone to addiction. Women become addicted much more quickly than men after being introduced to drugs, and they tend to relapse at a much higher rate after rehab. In addition, women tend to face much harsher consequences for addiction in every way. Both men and women face certain risks when they get addicted to drugs, such as problems with:

  • Health
  • Careers
  • Relationships
  • Family
  • Social stigma

While these are issues all addicts must deal with on some level, all of these problems hit harder for women. Women are more susceptible to the health risks of addiction, and are more likely to lose their jobs, partners, and even children (to social services) as a result of addiction. The risk factors for addiction also tend to be much stronger in women. Depression is one of the driving factors that leads people into drug abuse and eventually addiction, and women are twice as likely to experience depression in their lifetimes. In fact, mental illness, mood disorders, anxiety, and other psychiatric conditions are almost universally higher in women, which may be one of the factors explaining why women seem so much more susceptible to addiction. There are also a number of biological theories of addiction in women.

The Biology of Addiction in Women

There are a number of theories trying to explain why women are so much more susceptible to addiction than men, none of which are conclusive. One of the most accepted theories focuses on the way hormones affect a woman’s body differently than men. The general idea is that because a woman’s body undergoes so many more drastic hormonal changes on a regular basis, they are more susceptible to the alteration of body chemistry that drug abuse brings. This is somewhat supported by the fact that addicted women tend to report stronger cravings at specific times in the menstrual cycle. It is also known that alcohol often affects a woman’s body differently than a man’s, often just because of size. The saying is that one drink for a woman has twice the impact as one for a man, and while that’s probably not an exact count, there is biology to support it. A woman’s body generally tends to be smaller than a man’s (again, working in generalizations and averages), contains less water, and more fatty tissue. Fat retains alcohol, while water dilutes it. That all leads to a greater concentration of alcohol in women, even when consuming the same quantities. Those factors, in addition to simple size differences and differences in liver enzymes, contribute to the blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) effect from a single drink being generally much higher for women than for men. Finally, women are more susceptible to physical and mental conditions that are often treated with prescription opiates. Recent surveys have shown that over half of the 6.5 million Americans who abuse prescription drugs are female. Women generally visit doctors more often than men, and thus are more often prescribed medication. Many of these medications, like sleeping aids and pain relievers, are intended as temporary, but end up being long-term prescriptions that simply never go away. This is part of a larger trend that has seen fatal prescription drug overdoses in women jump in recent years.

Social Risk Factors, Consequences, and Pressures for Women

There is a clear double-standard at play when it comes to women and addiction, and not just in the biological factors that can’t be helped. Women have much more at risk when they fall into addiction, and face a much harsher stigma than men with the same problems. Addicted women will lose their jobs sooner than men with the same affliction to the same substance. A mother who suffers from addiction is more likely to live with her children and be faced with problems in the child welfare system than a father. In addition, women who suffer from addiction are at an exponentially higher chance of being victims of rape or sexual assault. Research has shown that over 70 percent of female drug users have been subject to sexual abuse of some kind before the time they 17. A majority of these women had at least one parent who abused drugs or alcohol. That said, most women don’t start using drugs as a result of their parents. Frequently, women are introduced to drugs as a result of their relationships with men. This is partly why the reasons for drug use tend to differ so wildly between the sexes. On top of all that, the stigma that drug-addicted women face, and the fear of such dramatic social consequences (like the possibility of losing their children, jobs, etc.) means that many of the women who need help with their addictions will never obtain it.

How Drug and Alcohol Treatment Differs for Women

Addiction doesn’t affect any two people the same, and it definitely doesn’t affect men and women the same. That’s why addiction treatment is adapting to treat the unique features that addicted women face that aren’t shared by their male counterparts. Even the path men and women take to rehab is different, and tends to shape their experiences there. Males are more likely to be referred to rehab by the criminal justice system or superiors at work. Females are more often referred to rehab by a social worker. Females are also more likely to be facing co-occurring disorders in rehab, as a result of mental health issues. In many cases, those mental health issues may stem from negative interactions with men, often involving sexual abuse. Because of the prevalence of these cases, some treatment facilities choose to separate patients by gender during treatment, at least for some time. This allows a more comfortable environment to discuss sensitive issues like sex, social pressures and domestic issues that women often face. Group therapy sessions appear particularly effective in treatment for women, as the supportive group environment is a particularly comfortable one. In addition, the behavioral therapy involved in holistic rehab seems to be an even more important part of rehab for women than medical treatment. Given that women are much more susceptible to relapse after rehab, it stands to reason that they are more susceptible to environmental cues and familiar habits, which are the primary focus of said therapy. Still, the reality is, there still isn’t enough research about what works for women and what doesn’t. We know that addiction is different, and certainly, major strides have been made the improve the rehabilitation experience for women by focusing on the unique issues and social pressures they face. But there is a lot of room to learn more and get better, and that’s what we’re striving for.

How Women Can Get Help With Addiction

Whether you’re male, female, or any other gender, getting treatment for addiction is always the right choice if you’re suffering. It’s important to find a rehab clinic that not only customizes treatment for different genders, but customizes treatment specifically for your needs. Do you know a woman in need of help? Contact us and we’ll talk you though it, and give you what we believe is the best course of action, whatever it may be. Nobody has to suffer through addiction alone.