For many years, medical research has mainly studied the addictive behaviors of men. Women were not included in such studies until the 1990s. Understanding the distinctions between men and women who suffer from addiction to drugs and alcohol is important for treatment. There are both biological and sociological causes behind these differences.
What Are the Differences?
Researchers generally agree that men are more likely than women to use drugs and alcohol, including all types of illicit drugs. The risk for men to end up in emergency visits due to drug overdose also tends to be higher. However, women are just as likely as men to develop a substance addiction. Once addicted, women are surprisingly more susceptible to cravings and relapse.
The impact of drugs on women’s memory can be more severe than on men’s memory. A few studies show that teenage girls who use marijuana may have a higher risk of brain structural abnormalities associated with regular drug use than teenage boys. Women who develop drug addiction can suffer more mental health issues, such as panic attacks and anxiety disorders, which usually progress more quickly than in men.
Men and women differ in susceptibility, recovery, and risk of relapse when it comes to addiction to drugs and alcohol. With regard to susceptibility, men are more likely to use and overuse due to peer pressure, while women tend to experience a faster transition from using substances to dependency. In recovery, men are more likely to stabilize at a lower dose but they may experience more intense withdrawal symptoms than women, who may suffer more severe side effects and overdose. In the area of relapse, women often struggle with more cravings and retain a higher risk of relapse than men.
How Can This Knowledge Inform Prevention and Treatment?
The gendered differences should guide medical professionals when designing treatment plans for patients and measuring outcomes. Although gender does not serve as an indicator for recovery progress, one should be aware of the many social and cultural hurdles that women experience when they seek professional help for recovery. First, women tend to experience greater stigmatization for drug and alcohol addiction. Society often associates women who have an addiction with a lack of moral character—more so than in men. Family members tend to exert greater pressure on them. Denial often runs high among women because they feel more shame admitting to addiction than men generally do. Overall, the higher risk of stigma may prevent them from entering into treatment.
The vast majority of women who develop addiction have experienced trauma in life. These include sexual assaults, domestic violence, and PTSD related to other traumatic events. Trauma-informed treatment must therefore be implemented to create a recovery-supportive environment for women.
While men are more susceptible to substance use disorder, women have a higher susceptibility to mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. The last one is particularly high among women, and they are often hesitant to talk about it due to the stigma associated with eating disorders. When these co-occur with addiction, treatment programs should take into account the higher likelihood of women having one or more co-occurring mental health disorders.
Because women are often the primary caregiver to children, many develop addiction while playing the role of a mother. Motherhood itself, from pregnancy to raising a child to adulthood, can exert an emotional and mental toll on a woman. This strain may lead to a mother using drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with life’s difficulties. Treatment professionals should consider motherhood as a factor when making treatment plans.
Knowing that there are gender differences in substance addiction does not account for sociocultural causes behind each individual’s case. Statistical research must inform understanding, but it is also crucial not to lose sight of the fact that substance addiction is a highly personal experience that affects each person differently.
What Are Some Supportive Treatments for Women?
While some treatment programs have long standardized their services for men, more and more treatment centers now have customized services that meet the needs of women. For example, treatment for women during recovery should include services that monitor menstrual health and other areas of sexual health.
Cognitive-behavioral therapists need to design an effective and gender-specific approach to help women overcome stigma, face past trauma, and develop healthy routines in diet and exercise. Meanwhile, a system of childcare and family support for women who go through treatment would be helpful as it takes a burden off a recovering mother’s mind, which may significantly improve recovery outcomes.
The addiction recovery industry is trending toward providing gender-specific treatment, which not only serves women, but also the LGBTQ and gender-fluid community, but the work is not yet complete. Health professionals need to be aware of the emotional vulnerability of these groups. The overall goal is to provide a supportive, collaborative, and confidence-boosting environment towards long-term recovery with treatment specific to gender.
Do you know about the differences between men and women when it comes to the risk for substance addiction? This knowledge can help you or your loved one find a better treatment plan which considers the role of gender. It can also help you better support a loved one through treatment. If you are looking for professional help, try Laguna Shores Recovery. Here, our licensed mental healthcare professionals and therapists know how to support individuals coming from a range of gender backgrounds. Our residential facility offers many treatments, including diagnosis, behavioral therapies, 12-step programs, and custom-made treatment plans. We have outpatient programs that not only treat addiction but address a range of mental health issues during all phases of your recovery. Recovery starts with connecting with a strong recovery community that can be sensitive to your needs. Call us at (866) 906-3203. We are here to walk alongside you every step of the journey.