Women report a lower rate of addiction than men, but they still experience more severe addictions at a faster rate, all due to their biology. Women are more likely to use different drugs, use them for different reasons and experience different consequences than male counterparts. Plus, more women are drinking alcohol than in previous decades and developing addictions to prescription drugs like painkillers and sleeping pills.
Addiction affects women differently for various reasons. As a distinct population, women are at risk for addiction because of their unique experiences, including family history and genetics. Plus, substances have a more significant impact on women because of physical characteristics, such as sex hormones and body weight. These risk factors make some women more likely to get addicted, but understanding the factors offers keys to recovery. When women understand why they experience substance cravings, they can manage the reasons before their behavior gets out of control.
While women and men share many problems associated with addiction, the disease as a whole is influenced by gender and gender roles in our society. Around 9 million women use illegal drugs and 3.7 million take prescription drugs non-medically. Studies show more than 4 million women need addiction treatment.
Physical Factors Play a Significant Role
Drugs that change mental perception and awareness are particularly dangerous for women. Women often have lower body weights than men, so smaller amounts of drugs go further in a woman’s body. Also, the mind-altered state a woman experiences on drugs leads to possible dangerous situations and circumstances that create trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder or other serious problems. Women who take drugs give unique reasons for using them, including using them for weight loss, to fight extreme fatigue, cope with pain and self-treat mental health problems.
Family History of Addiction Is a Risk Factor
Having a parent who abuses drugs or alcohol increases a person’s risk of addiction. While the risk of addiction is higher for people with a family history of substance use, not every person with addicted family members struggles with the disease. At some point in life, everyone makes a decision to use drugs for the first time. If a woman with a family history of addiction never chooses to use drugs, addiction will not be a personal hurdle for her. However, if she does choose to use drugs, the likelihood of developing an addiction is higher than someone who does not have a family history. In fact, genetics make up between 40% and 60% of drug addiction vulnerability.
Genetic factors are important for two reasons. For example,some women who develop an addiction after growing up in a family of substance users may not see the connection. These women may question why addiction happens – why addiction affects one woman but not her best friend with similar experiences. The answer is partially answered by the science of genetics. In fact, of women who use drugs or alcohol more than 80% had at least one parent addicted to alcohol or illicit drugs.
The other reason knowledge about genetics is important is to protect next generation. If a small child experiences drug abuse and addiction through his mother, he learns to soothe stress through substances and live in the chaos addiction brings. Mothers are particularly vulnerable to addiction because their substance use affects them and their children. In such cases, it’s crucial to make a serious change. While the genetic issue is still a factor, it’s possible to change behaviors and set a better example for children. Even addicted women who do not have children need help. Getting clean and removing the negative influences of drugs before children come along stops the cycle from continuing into another generation.
Substance Use Leads to Dangerous Behaviors
Substance use increases a person’s chances of engaging in risky behaviors with lifelong, even life-threatening, consequences. One study of social drinkers using brain scans found alcohol decreases activity in an area of the brain that senses danger.The human brain scan study shows changes in the way a person sees danger once he drinks alcohol. Since every person experiences fear in different ways and may be fearful of different things, alcohol inhibits different reactions for each person. A person who feels shy or inhibited in social settings may become more sociable. Of course, women who drink also lose the ability to fully read the signs of truly dangerous situations. These situations range from driving a car while under the influence to having unprotected sex with someone she doesn’t know.
Aside from alcohol, other drugs bring on risks ranging from poor judgment to disease transmission. Women in particular are at higher risk of contracting HIV due to drug use. Around 70% of U.S. women who developed AIDS after being exposed to the HIV virus reported that drugs were related to contracting the disease.4 HIV and AIDS are not the only diseases affecting a woman with substance use issues. Other conditions might include:
- Genital herpes
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
Another issue affecting women who abuse substances is the risk of violent crimes. Women who suffer from addiction, due to the habitual use of drugs or alcohol, find themselves in circumstances beyond their control more frequently than members of the general population. Plus, they frequently are the victims of sexual assault or violent crime. At least one-half of violent crimes and sexual assaults involve alcohol consumption, including the aggressor, the victim or both. Plus, 70% report being abused sexually before age 16.6
Association Between Sexual Abuse, Women and Drug Addiction
Women who endure childhood sexual abuse are more likely to suffer with addiction later in life. Research on more than 1,400 twins showed the risk of addiction doesn’t just double, but triples when women experience childhood sexual abuse. Women in the study also reported more than one psychological issue, including major depression and anxiety disorders. A number of women reported more than one disorder, which could be a combination of major depression and alcohol dependence, or anxiety and drug dependence, or any combination included in the study.
Women who suffer with a drug or alcohol addiction along with a mental health disorder have co-occurring conditions. It’s common for people to have co-occurring conditions, such as alcoholism and depression. For people with co-occurring conditions the best treatment is an integrated treatment plan that addresses the symptoms of addiction and mental illness at the same time. For instance, a woman who uses drugs as a means to escape the trauma of childhood sexual abuse, or as a way to handle depression needs treatment for both conditions in order to make a longer lasting recovery. When patients are treated for an addiction alone or for a mental illness alone, they are in danger of relapse or worsening symptoms because they still suffer from the untreated condition. For example, when a treatment program addresses only addiction, without addressing the behaviors and thought processes that contributed to drug use in the first place, a woman lacks the tools required to remain in recovery. By treating the addiction and her depression or other disorders she gains more tools to manage behavior and benefits from medications necessary to treat mental health disorders.
Effective Treatment Addresses Many Needs
Years of research and study by federal agencies such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows there are several treatment methods that produce significant reduction in addiction symptoms and long-term sobriety. Evidence-based, effective treatment gives people with an addiction ways to manage a chronic disorder that affects a person’s behavior and brain. Addiction symptoms, when treated appropriately, do improve a person’s quality of life and the lives of family members.
One of the first principles of effective treatment is that each person is an individual, with a unique history and a unique set of current circumstances. For instance, one woman might be the sole financial and care provider for her children, while another woman may have children with family members who can care for them. Still another woman may not have children, so the impact of addiction and recovery treatment on an extended family is not an issue. One woman may be married, while another is not. A woman’s age and length of addiction also affects the development of an effective treatment program. Taking into consideration each and every aspect of a woman’s life is important.
The following factors also are necessary for effective treatment:
- A treatment program that lasts long enough to meet needs, rather than being arbitrarily set to a specific number of days or weeks
- A facility with staff members who have the experience, dedication and ability to diagnose any co-occurring disorders that need attention
- A program tailored to the needs of women, not only for all women, but also a woman as an individual
- Routine assessment of the treatment plan for any needed adjustments in light of changes in progress or circumstances
- Help with issues relating to legal matters (either civil or criminal), employment or social/family relationships to increase coping skills
Getting help for an addiction doesn’t need to be overwhelming. There are people – good, knowledgeable people – with expertise to get patients through the worst parts of detoxification and into a state of sober recovery. If you or a woman you love is battling an addiction to drugs or alcohol, please do not hesitate to contact us here at The Canyon for more information about how we can help.
 Greenfield, S. F., Back, S. E., Lawson, K., & Brady, K. T. (2010). Substance Abuse in Women. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America. Retrieved Dec. 5, 2016 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3124962/.
 National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2015). Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use. Drug Facts: Substance Use in Women. Retrieved Dec. 5, 2016 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/substance-use-in-women.
 NIDA. (1994). Women and Drug Abuse. Retrieved Dec. 5, 2016 from https://archives.drugabuse.gov/WomenDrugs/Women-DrugAbuse3.html.
 NIDA. (2015). Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use. Drug Facts: Substance Use in Women. Retrieved Dec. 5, 2016 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/substance-use-in-women.
 NIDA. (2014). What is drug addiction? Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. Retrieved Dec. 5, 2016 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drug-abuse-addiction.
 NIDA. (2016). DrugFacts—Genetics and Epigenetics of Addiction. Retrieved Dec. 5, 2016 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/genetics-epigenetics-addiction.
 Society for Neuroscience. (2008). Why People Engage In Risky Behavior While Intoxicated: Imaging Study Provides Glimpse Of Alcohol’s Effect On Brain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved Dec. 5, 2016 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080429204252.htm.
 Abbey, Antonia, et. al. Alcohol and Sexual Assault. Retrieved Dec. 5, 2016 from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-1/43-51.htm.
 Zickler, Patricia. (2002). Childhood Sex Abuse Increases Risk for Drug Dependence in Adult Women. National Institute on Drug Abuse Archives. Retrieved Dec. 5, 2016 from https://archives.drugabuse.gov/NIDA_Notes/NNVol17N1/Childhood.html.
 NIDA. (2012). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition). Retrieved Dec. 5, 2016 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/principles-effective-treatment.