Gender Differences in Addiction and Recovery
Drug abuse begins with acquisition or initiation of drug taking and in vulnerable individuals can eventually progress through phases of increased use until an individual is addicted. Gender differences are present for all of the facets of drug abuse, which includes initiation, then the escalation of use and the progression to addiction, with subsequent withdrawal followed by either recovery or relapse. While there are some differences among specific classes of abused drugs, the general pattern of sex differences is the same for all drugs of abuse.
Addiction is more prevalent among men than women. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, men are twice as likely as women to meet the criteria for drug addiction in their lifetime (excluding prescription drugs, the rates are about equal).
Different factors predispose men and women to addiction. Studies have found that men tend to use drugs to amplify positive moods; often to mask insecurity and sadness which may be perceived as weakness, and/or cope with social and behavioral problems, while women are more likely to self-medicate emotional and psychological issues. Anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder and eating disorders more commonly affect women and can increase their risk of drug use.
For women, relationships, childhood trauma, stress, parental drug use and home environment, victimization, and co-occurring psychiatric disorders precipitate substance abuse and relapse. Women are also more likely than men to use stimulant drugs such as nicotine, cocaine, and amphetamines to suppress appetite or manage weight.
Biology plays an important role in the development of addictions, especially for women. Women get drunk after consuming smaller amounts of alcohol than men and, as the result of less total body water and certain metabolizing enzymes, have higher blood alcohol concentrations after drinking the same amount of alcohol as men. Studies have also implicated estrogen in the development of addiction, hormonal changes impact women’s “sensitization” to drugs (the long-term changes that occur in the brain as a result of drug use). A growing body of research links the phases of a woman’s menstrual cycle with her response to, craving for and ability to quit using drugs.
Everyone suffers extreme hardship as a result of chemical dependency. But women tend to experience more serious drug-related medical, social and psychiatric consequences more quickly than men. They progress more rapidly than men from use to dependence to treatment and, despite using smaller amounts and being addicted for a shorter period of time, their symptoms are often as severe as men’s by the time they get to rehab.
Women are also at risk of specific consequences that are less likely to impact men, including certain physical complications (e.g., women are more likely to develop lung cancer and have a heart attack from smoking) as well as victimization, abuse, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Barriers to Treatment
Both men and women face significant barriers to treatment, but studies show that women who abuse drugs are less likely to seek help. Practical concerns such as cost, child-care arrangements, lack of social support, and responsibilities at home and work, along with the heightened stigma of being a female addict, are among the hurdles women face.
Response to Treatment
Once women find their way into treatment, they are just as likely as men to stay there and have comparable abstinence and relapse rates as men. Some studies suggest that women have the upper hand in recovery, with shorter relapse periods and greater willingness to seek help after a relapse. Like men, women may benefit from services that are sensitive to their specific needs; for example, family/group therapy, parenting education, treatment for mental disorders and other supportive approaches.
Similarities are more striking in men and women than are the differences, however, the reality is that men and women are different – in some ways that are intriguing but insignificant, and in other ways that have some bearing on the way we live. When it comes to addiction and mental health, but the differences between men and women undoubtedly impact the course of treatment and recovery.
Every facet of the substance use/abuse/addiction/recovery path is unique and personal. As has often been noted, recovery treatments must be adapted to the needs and psycho-biological issues of each individual.
HIR professionals work intensively with each individual to implement treatment and recovery plans personalized to ensure the very best and thorough successful outcome.