With rates of addiction rising among women, it’s becoming clear that a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment does not adequately address the unique impacts of this disease on different genders. Modern research is clarifying how addiction differs along gendered lines, and how to best address it.
You’ve told yourself that having a few glasses of wine with the other moms is what you need to let loose after a long day managing work and kids, but what about when you start finishing the bottle (or two) off by yourself when you get back home?
Your back pain isn’t getting any better, but your schedule isn’t letting up either. You’ve noticed you’re going through your prescription painkillers faster than you were before, but don’t you have a good reason for taking more than you should?
Your partner has started using again, despite all your best efforts to get them treatment and help them quit. The stress is almost unbearable, and at this point drinking is the only thing helping you cope. You’ve always been the responsible one, it’s not really an issue, right?
For many years, the majority of addiction research and treatment overlooked the unique experiences of women with this disease. However, as the reported rates of addiction in women have increased, the focus of addiction science has broadened to better understand the drivers and specific impacts of addiction on women. Recognising and analysing the different factors at play in addiction for women has been essential in developing new, more effective prevention, identification and treatment strategies for addiction.
How it Starts: Causes of Addiction for Women
The issues that contribute to addiction in women are similar across genders, but impact women differently due to both biological and societal factors. Common causes include:
Addiction has long been connected to genetics, as studies have indicated that certain genes may play a role in predisposition to addiction. This helps explain the prevalence of generational substance abuse disorders beyond learned or environmental factors, and highlights the increased risk that relatives of those with addiction have for becoming addicted themselves. Some research has suggested that hormones may also play a role in certain addictions and drug cravings, with one study linking a greater potential for cocaine dependency to ovarian hormones.
Experiencing trauma can also factor into addiction, as people experiment with different ways to cope with the resulting mental health impacts. Statistically, women are exposed more to types of trauma that are linked to drug and alcohol abuse, such as sexual abuse and assault, incest, and familial or interpersonal violence, which subsequently raises the risk for addiction.
Stress, Anxiety and Depression
Society places a tremendous amount of pressure on women to look and behave in specific ways that are often unrealistic and exclusive of the diversity and breadth of women’s personalities, experiences, and aspirations. While progress has been made in addressing some of these issues, much work remains. Oppressive expectations cause a tremendous amount of stress, and contribute to higher rates of depression and anxiety among women. Self-medication is one way some women attempt to cope, and can lead to addiction.
Pain and addiction have long been linked as people either become addicted to pain medications, or attempt to find ways to cope with chronic pain. Studies have found that women are more likely to experience chronic pain, and are more likely to be prescribed opioid pain relievers, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers, putting them at greater risk for addiction.
Partners with Addiction
The influence of a romantic partner can also be the starting point for addiction for some women. Substance abuse may start out as a casual way to connect with a partner who is also using, but can evolve into a full-blown dependency. In other situations, women who are in relationships with an addicted partner may turn to substances to cope with stress or abuse in the relationship and end up addicted themselves. These types of co-dependent relationships are deeply unhealthy, and can fuel ongoing cycles of addiction.
Common Types of Addiction for Women
Women tend to have a specific progress towards addiction described in some studies as “telescoping.” This means that women begin using drugs or alcohol at lower levels and at a later age, but can progress to addiction more quickly. Some of the more common addictions among women include:
Alcohol misuse can start in a variety of scenarios for women – from drinking to have fun or fit in during their school years, to coping with anxiety or depression, to partaking in the “wine mom” culture heavily marketed to stressed mothers. Because women who abuse alcohol may still be functional in their jobs or at home, they might not recognise the damage that their drinking is causing until serious health problems arise. In the last decade, the increase of alcohol addiction in women has seen sharp upticks in alcohol-related visits to the emergency room as well as serious complications such as cirrhosis.
Women are typically more likely to seek treatment for physical ailments like pain, as well as mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, and are more likely to be prescribed medication to manage these conditions. While these drugs can be useful in some cases, a sole reliance on medications to manage complex conditions such as chronic pain or depression may not be sufficient, and can lead to misuse of the medication in an attempt to deal with ongoing symptoms. This can include taking medicine in doses or at a frequency beyond what has been prescribed, mixing medications, or taking medicine for a longer period than recommended. These practices can greatly increase the risk of addiction.
Stimulants like ice, meth and crystal are increasingly popular party and club drugs, and may also be used among women for a boost in mood and energy, or as an appetite suppressant. Studies have shown that abuse of these drugs can have specific and serious impacts on gray matter in women’s brains, causing significant problems in mood regulation, memory, and comprehension. Some diet pills also contain or are closely related to amphetamines, and carry a similar high risk of addiction.
Signs of Addiction
It can be difficult to identify when casual use of a substance has turned into a dependency, particularly if the person using is still functional in their daily lives. However, there are some general signs that can indicate when a physical or psychological dependency has developed. These include:
- Development of a tolerance; needing to consume an increasingly greater amount to get the desired effect
- Regular thoughts or cravings for a substance
- Feeling the need to conceal or downplay the amount or frequency of use
- Missing work, appointments, or other responsibilities due to being intoxicated or hungover
- Unexplained changes in weight, sleeping patterns, or personal appearance
- Loss of interest or motivation to participate in activities or events once enjoyed
- Change in relationships or social circles
Women and Addiction Treatment
While women are more likely to seek treatment when they realise they have an addiction, they also face additional barriers in obtaining it. These obstacles can range from economic disadvantages to additional time demands that come from trying to balance familial roles and professional responsibilities. For women who have experienced trauma, mixed-gender support groups may feel uncomfortable or triggering.
Women also report feeling greater levels of stigma for addiction, especially those who have children, which can also prevent some women from acknowledging or seeking help for a dependency. Treatment that is sensitive to the unique needs and challenges that women with addiction face will help ensure the effectiveness of treatment, and the strength of recovery.
Addiction Treatment for Women at The Dawn
At The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab Thailand, our focus is on compassionate, holistic treatment for addiction that addresses the root causes of dependency and co-occurring disorders like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, while also cultivating lifelong, healthy coping mechanisms that will override the need to use again. Our experienced team of specialists works closely with each client to develop a personalised plan built to fit their individual needs so that they can achieve a successful, long-term recovery from addiction.
If you or a woman you care about is struggling with dependency, call The Dawn today to learn more about how we can support you.