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Addiction in Women

Addiction affects people regardless of age, gender, race, or background. However, exactly how addiction affects each person varies depending on these factors. Additionally, women experience addiction differently than men.

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Addiction Defined

Addiction is a chronic medical disease that causes a change in a person’s behaviors, leading to a compulsive desire for a substance or behavior despite its harmful consequences.

Complex interactions between the brain, genetics, environment and life experiences lead to the development of addiction.

While treatable, addiction often goes unnoticed due to the secretive nature of the addiction itself. Many addicts will hide their drug or behavior abuse, making it more difficult for family and friends to identify the warning signs.

It’s important to acknowledge that everyone experiences challenges differently, including those individuals who identify as trans women or present as female. Our page dedicated to addiction within the LGBTQIA+ community offers information tailored to these specific experiences.

Statistical Differences Between Addiction in Men and Women

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), women experience substance use differently than men:

  • Men are more likely to drink alcohol and use illicit drugs recreationally than women.
  • Women usually respond more sensitively to drugs and alcohol than men, causing smaller amounts of certain substances to quickly lead to the accelerated progression of addiction (also known as “telescoping”).
  • Women are also more likely to progress into a substance use disorder than their male counterparts consuming at the same rate.

Potential Causes of Substance Use Disorder in Women

Women face unique issues regarding substance abuse, influenced by differences based on biology and culturally-defined roles for men and women.

At the beginning of the substance abuse process, research shows that men more often succumb to peer pressure, while women are more likely to self-medicate. Many women without access to medical or mental health treatment find themselves turning to drug or alcohol abuse as a coping strategy.

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Addiction Risk Factors for Women

A common risk factor, regardless of gender, includes a history of addiction in the family. Because certain genes are linked to patterns of addiction, awareness of addiction within your family can help avoid certain risks.

While genetics pose a risk for any gender, women have an increased risk.

Although men are more likely to form a dependency than women, women may develop dependencies much faster than men. A woman already vulnerable to addiction tends to escalate after initial drug use and may continue to use despite negative consequences.

Self-Medicating

While many factors come into play regardless of gender, studies show that many women use drugs as a form of self-medication. In some cases, this self-medication occurs due to a lack of access to mental health services, medical treatment, and childcare services.

In other cases, women may depend on substances to cope with symptoms caused by trauma such as domestic violence or sexual abuse.

Some women also report using drugs for chronic pain, fighting exhaustion, controlling weight, or treating mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.

Because of the elevated risk of more rapid dependency than men, women who self-medicate using drugs or alcohol may quickly find themselves deep in addiction.

Trauma

A contributing factor to self-medication in women relates to their experience with domestic violence or sexual assault.

According to data from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey:

  • 1 in 3 women experience some form of physical violence by an intimate partner
  • 1 in 7 women has been injured by an intimate partner

Because women experience these kinds of trauma at higher rates than men, survivors may become dependent on alcohol and drugs to manage trauma symptoms or ongoing traumatic events.

Unfortunately, self-medicating for trauma won’t solve issues and can cause symptoms to worsen by triggering new mental health problems and worsening current mental health problems.

Hormonal Impact

Hormones play a huge role in the mental and physical health of women. When these hormones fall out of balance, women may become more susceptible to developing a substance use disorder.

In fact, according to National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), sex hormones increase women’s sensitivity to the effects of certain drugs.

Physiological Differences

Compared to men, the female body has fewer stomach enzymes, and this causes the body to process drugs and alcohol slower. As a result, lower doses of the substance have a greater effect on women for longer.

Co-Occurring Mental Illness

Mental illnesses and seeking treatment come with their own stigmas. On top of that, many women struggle to find accessible, affordable treatment options.

With nowhere left to turn, many women look to substance use to handle their symptoms.

Mental illnesses that commonly coincide with substance use include the following:

The immense stress and disruption these conditions can cause may motivate women to seek substances that temporarily alleviate the strain of their struggles. Despite any short-term relief substances provide, abusing drugs and alcohol only worsens these symptoms in the long run.

Substance Use and Women’s Health Issues

Substance use poses serious risks specific to women’s health, especially for women capable of pregnancy.

While it may go without saying that alcohol and drugs jeopardize a pregnancy and the unborn child, other health impacts shouldn’t be overlooked.

Health Risks

Studies show that substance use in women can cause issues related to hormones, menstrual cycle, fertility, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause.

If previous health issues exist before substance abuse, the situation only becomes worse with prolonged drug and alcohol consumption.

NIDA reports that substance abuse may have the following effects on women’s health:

  • Women who use drugs may also experience more physical effects on their hearts and blood vessels.
  • Brain changes in women who use drugs can differ from those in men.
  • Women may be more likely to go to the emergency room or die from overdose or other effects of certain substances.
  • Women who use certain substances may be more likely to have panic attacks, anxiety, or depression.

Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Substance use during pregnancy poses a serious risk to the mother’s health and that of her child in the short and long term. Opioid use, for instance, can potentially harm an unborn baby.

Some substances can increase the risk of miscarriage plus cause seizures, migraines, or high blood pressure in the mother, affecting her fetus.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development shows that the risk of stillbirth is 2 to 3 times greater for mothers who smoke tobacco or marijuana, take prescription drugs for pain, or use illegal drugs during pregnancy.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) suggests that marijuana can result in smaller babies, especially in women who use marijuana frequently in the first and second trimesters.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS)

When a mother uses drugs and alcohol during pregnancy, the child can experience withdrawal after birth or Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). The use of illegal or prescription opioids, alcohol, caffeine, and some prescription sedatives can cause a whole range of symptoms depending on the drug used and how often it was taken.

Certain substances, like marijuana, alcohol, nicotine, and some medicines, can be found in breast milk. However, little is known about the long-term effects on a child exposed to these substances through their mother’s milk.

Pregnant women should check with their healthcare provider before using any medicines or substances.

Signs of Substance Abuse in Women

The symptoms of substance abuse in women can be difficult to identify, especially when other factors like hormonal changes or mental illness are present.

Many women experience Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS), which causes symptoms that could be mistaken for a sign of addiction. Consider these other factors if you suspect a female friend or family member struggles with drug or alcohol addiction.

Physical Warning Signs of Addiction in Women

Physical warning signs of addiction in women include:

  • Altered or secretive behavior
  • Appetite changes
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Changes in physical appearance
  • Defensiveness about substance use
  • Financial issues
  • Lack of energy
  • Poor work performance
  • Problems at school
  • Spending more money than usual
  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain
  • Slurred speech

Behavioral Warning Signs of Addiction in Women

Behavioral warning signs of addiction in women include:

  • Obsessing over getting the drug
  • Disregarding risks and warning signs
  • Unable to stop using the drug
  • Denying or hiding drug use
  • Anxiousness
  • Changes in personality
  • Emotional and mental withdrawal
  • Inattentiveness
  • Irritability
  • Lack of motivation
  • Mood swings
  • Paranoia
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Substance Abuse Treatment for Women

According to research from McLean Hospital at Harvard Medical School, women are less likely to seek treatment than men and more likely to face gender-specific treatment barriers.

With so many stigmas surrounding women’s health, mental health, and substance abuse, many women find treatment unappealing or fear they will be met with judgment and even abuse.

For women who require inpatient care, co-ed housing and therapy can be a common concern, especially if she has a history of domestic abuse or rape. Thankfully, women-specific treatment centers are becoming more popular and accessible.

How Addiction Treatment Differs for Women

It’s important to understand how women view their addiction differently than men. Women often report higher feelings of shame and guilt surrounding their substance use. Often, these feelings stem from gender-specific roles associated with caregiving.

With this in mind, women-specific treatment services focus on how the female-lived experience informs patterns of addiction.

Ideally, services for women should include women-only programming, strong female leaders and providers, peer support, and cultural programming that addresses the unique and specific needs of women in treatment.

Therapy

No matter what type of treatment program you choose, therapy should be a large component of treatment. Group therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) often show up in treatment programs, and for good reason.

Therapy for addiction works by helping the individual identify core beliefs about themselves, confront past trauma, and find more healthy ways of coping with difficult emotions.

Being surrounded by other women with similar struggles, obstacles, and traumas can be very healing for some women.

Treatment often includes individual therapy, allowing the patient to be especially vulnerable and focus inward. In ideal cases, the therapists and counselors involved are also female, especially for those with trauma related to men.

Treatment Programs for Women

Treatment usually falls under inpatient treatment, residential treatment, Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP), or Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP). Although other variations of these programs may exist in your area, they typically follow a similar format.

Inpatient treatment occurs in a special hospital wing or at a separate medical facility, providing medical detox if necessary.

In both inpatient and residential treatment, patients stay on campus for the duration of the treatment. Still, this option is usually reserved for more serious cases of addiction where patients may be a risk to themselves.

PHP and IOP, sometimes considered “day treatment,” do not require the patient to live on campus. Women-focused treatment programs tend to follow these formats but focus on women-only programming and employ female healthcare providers.

Some treatment plans may emphasize healing from trauma, while others focus on mothers. If you’re considering a women-focused treatment program for yourself or a loved one, medical professionals can help you choose the best option for each situation.

Addiction Support Groups for Women

Support groups offer additional support, especially after treatment plans end. The power of support groups comes from peer support—connecting with other women who face similar difficulties can help you feel less alone in a judgment-free setting.

These support groups offer women-specific resources that may be of great help:

  • AA (Alcoholics Anonymous): AA has women-only 12-step programs that support abstinence from alcohol.
  • Women for Sobriety: For 40 years, Women for Sobriety has been helping women recover from alcohol use disorder and other substance use disorders through weekly in-person and online meetings.
  • SMART Recovery and Moderation Management: These groups offer a secular, non-12-step approach to sobriety and management, with many chapters offering women-only groups.

Treatment of Co-Occurring Disorders

In many cases, women fighting addiction also battle mental illnesses or other health conditions. Often, the inability to treat these illnesses leads to addictive behaviors in the first place.

If mental health issues or medical concerns contribute to a woman’s craving to use, treating those co-occurring disorders is imperative to freedom from addiction.

Treatment programs aim to address addiction and any existing or unknown illnesses. If you suspect another condition contributes to the addiction in yourself or a loved one, make sure to mention those concerns to your doctor or a trained professional at your chosen treatment center.

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Finding Help for Women Dealing with Addiction

Despite all the stigma surrounding women battling addiction, there are treatment options tailored to the female experience that can help you or a loved one find vital support on your path to recovery.

Visit SAMHSA’s online treatment locator at findtreatment.gov or call (800) 662-4357 to learn what programs are in your area and ready to help.

Frequently Asked Questions about Addiction in Women

What is the difference between addiction in men and addiction in women?

Research shows that women respond more sensitively to drugs and alcohol than men.

Smaller amounts of certain substances quickly lead to the accelerated progression of addiction in women versus men, an effect called “telescoping.” Because of this, women are more likely to progress into a substance use disorder than their male counterparts consuming at the same rate.

 

How is addiction treatment different for women?

Women-focused addiction treatment tends to offer women-only programming, strong female leaders and providers, peer support, and cultural programming that addresses the unique needs of women in treatment.

What issues do women face in recovery from addiction?

Although stigma towards substance abuse exists for all addicts, women face specific judgment and criticism due to their role as caregivers and mothers.

Their struggle with addiction becomes a reflection of their abilities and value as mothers, causing many women to feel more shame and guilt than their men counterparts.

Are women more likely to develop an addiction?

Due to the “telescoping” effect and how substances affect female bodies, a small amount of a drug or alcohol can lead to addiction faster than in men.

While overall addiction rates remain higher in men, women face particular risks in how quickly substance use can become addictive and dangerous.

Chris Carberg is the Founder of Addiction HelpReviewed by:Chris Carberg

AddictionHelp.com Founder & Mental Health Advocate

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Chris Carberg is a visionary digital entrepreneur, the founder of AddictionHelp.com, and a long-time recovering addict from prescription opioids, sedatives, and alcohol.  Over the past 15 years, Chris has worked as a tireless advocate for addicts and their loved ones while becoming a sought-after digital entrepreneur. Chris is a storyteller and aims to share his story with others in the hopes of helping them achieve their own recovery.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction HelpWritten by:

Editorial Director

Jessica Miller is the Editorial Director of Addiction Help. Jessica graduated from the University of South Florida (USF) with an English degree and combines her writing expertise and passion for helping others to deliver reliable information to those impacted by addiction. Informed by her personal journey to recovery and support of loved ones in sobriety, Jessica's empathetic and authentic approach resonates deeply with the Addiction Help community.

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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, July 19). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) | Division of Violence Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 11, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/datasources/nisvs/index.html

  3. Greenfield, S. F., Back, S. E., Lawson, K., & Brady, K. T. (2010, June). Substance Abuse in Women. The Psychiatric clinics of North America. Retrieved February 11, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3124962/

  4. Lee, N., & Boeri, M. (2017). Managing Stigma: Women Drug Users and Recovery Services. Fusio: the Bentley Undergraduate Research Journal. Retrieved February 11, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6103317/

  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, September). 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Women. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Retrieved February 11, 2023, from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt31102/2019NSDUH-Women/Women%202019%20NSDUH.pptx

  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022, December 19). Substance Use in Women Drugfacts. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved February 11, 2023, from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/substance-use-in-women

  7. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022, May 4). Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved February 11, 2023 from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/substance-use-in-women/sex-gender-differences-in-substance-use

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