Everyone faces different challenges when recovering from addiction. Exactly what challenges you face depends on several factors, including age, sex, personal history, medical history, and co-occurring mental health issues. Everyone has a unique set of circumstances, so treatment for addiction should be personalized and multifaceted.
Generally speaking, though, women face challenges in addiction recovery that men do not.
6 Challenges for Women Recovering from Addiction
1. Women Become Addicted More Quickly
On average, women are less likely to use illicit substances than men are. They tend to perceive them as more dangerous, and there’s more of a social stigma against women using drugs and alcohol. Actually, women are quickly closing the gender gap when it comes to binge drinking and some other drugs. Men are more likely to be introduced to illicit drugs by their friends, whereas women tend to be introduced to illicit drugs by an intimate partner, which means they have less exposure to potentially addictive substances.
However, women who use drugs and alcohol tend to escalate their use more quickly than men and become addicted much more quickly. There are thought to be physiological reasons for this, and some of them may vary depending on the drug. For example, women tend to be more affected by alcohol because they have less of an enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the stomach, leading to a higher blood alcohol content. So a drink for a woman might have twice the impact it would have on a man. Some studies suggest the hormones estrogen and progesterone may increase addictive behavior.
2. Women May Associate with People Who Don’t Support Their Recovery
One piece of very good news for women in recovery is that women are less prone to relapse than men. A UCLA study of more than 300 people from 26 treatment programs found that in the course of six months, 32 percent of men relapsed, while only 22 percent of women relapsed. While trying to explain this discrepancy, researchers considered the possibility that women enjoyed more robust social support, which is one of the best predictors of a strong recovery. They did find that women were more likely than men to maintain a social network, but it turned out that network wasn’t especially supportive of recovery.
Maintaining relationships with people who don’t support your recovery and might intentionally undermine it is a serious risk for someone in recovery. It is even more of an issue if you maintain a relationship with a partner who still drinks or uses drugs, especially if that relationship is codependent.
3. Women Develop Health Problems More Quickly from Substance Use
As noted above, women metabolize various substances differently–and often less efficiently–than men do. This can lead to developing addiction more quickly, and it can also lead to health problems more quickly. If every drink a woman takes is essentially equal to two drinks, that equates to much more damage to the body in the same amount of time.
Women have a higher risk than men of developing liver diseases, such as fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis. Women are also more at risk for developing cardiovascular disease, especially damage to the heart muscle as well as alcohol-induced brain damage. Finally, excessive drinking increases the risk of various kinds of cancer, including mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast cancer. Many of these issues may appear at a surprisingly young age, and treatment for addiction should include treatment for these health issues.
4. Women Are More Likely to Relapse Because of Negative Emotions
We tend to imagine that relapses are usually caused by negative events, perhaps a breakup or getting fired, but at least one study has found that it may be different for men and women. A study from the University of Pennsylvania found that men were actually more likely to experience positive emotions before relapse. They may be feeling good and let their guard down or feel like since they don’t “need” a drink, they can drink in moderation.
However, women were more likely to report negative emotions or interpersonal problems before a relapse. What’s more, women tended to be more impulsive when they relapsed. Fifty-six percent of the women in the study said they relapsed immediately after the thought of using cocaine occurred to them, compared to only seventeen percent of the men. This is why healthy coping strategies, positive relationships, and emotional regulation skills are so crucial in addiction recovery.
5. Women Are More Prone to Common Mental Health Issues
At least half of people who struggle with substance use also have a co-occurring mental health issue. These typically include anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, PTSD, OCD, schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders, and personality disorders. Many of these affect men and women about equally, and some affect men more, but the most common mental health issues–depression and anxiety disorders–affect women at about twice the rate as men.
There are thought to be a number of reasons behind this. Biology is thought to play a major role, especially hormones, which change drastically around menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth. Women may also process serotonin–the “feel-good hormone”–differently, leading to higher levels of stress. Women are far more likely than men to be victims of domestic abuse, physical assault, and sexual assault, which can lead to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Integrated treatment for these co-occurring mental health issues is an essential part of recovery.
6. Women Have Different Barriers to Treatment Than Men
In general, men are more reluctant to admit they have a problem and seek treatment. They tend to see it as a sign of weakness or that they can’t handle their own problems. Women are typically more willing to seek help for substance use and mental health issues, but they may face other barriers. For example, women often feel a greater stigma admitting to substance use issues. Women also frequently have to find someone to help take care of their children, or they may have to accommodate a pregnancy. Many women can’t afford childcare, and they may fear losing custody if they admit to having a substance use issue.
Discover More About Fort Behavioral Health’s Addiction Treatment Programs for Women
At Fort, we offer a safe and nurturing space for women to recover from the complex disease of addiction. Our team believes in inspiring each client to face their challenges, discover the root of their problems, and reclaim their lives. Our programs are designed to treat the underlying causes of addiction and help each client create a plan for lifelong recovery. We combine a 12-step approach with a strong mental health component, integrating cutting-edge techniques such as:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR)
- Somatic experiencing
- Motivational interviewing
Contact us today at 817-382-2894 or by email via our contact page.