Alcohol or drug addiction is a serious, life-threatening problem that causes tremendous pain and suffering for everyone it touches. Yet the specific ways in which addiction progresses, and how it impacts physical health, mental health and relationships, varies depending on a number of factors – including gender.
Women and Addiction
Men are more likely than women to abuse drugs and alcohol. But women’s rates of substance misuse have risen, particularly related to opioids. Nearly 16 million women, or almost 13 percent of the female U.S. population, used illicit drugs in the past year, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (Illicit drugs are defined as illegal drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin, as well as the misuse of prescription drugs.)
Between 1999 and 2010, data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that deaths among women from opioid overdose have increased at a much faster rate than for men, 400 percent compared with 265 percent. And women between the ages of 25 and 54 are more likely than any other age group to go to the emergency room because of prescription painkiller abuse.
Here’s what you need to know about how addiction impacts women, and their unique needs in recovery.
Women’s bodies respond to substances differently.
Research shows that women metabolize alcohol less efficiently than men, in part because they have decreased activity of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. Alcohol dehydrogenase breaks down alcohol in the liver and stomach and keeps it from entering the bloodstream. Women’s bodies also contain less water and more fatty tissue than men of a similar size, which causes them to retain higher concentrations of alcohol in their blood. This means women get intoxicated faster than men and suffer from hangovers more easily.
When it comes to drugs such as pain medications and heroin, it takes a smaller amount of drugs used for a shorter period of time for women to become addicted, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Women are more likely to be prescribed opioid painkillers.
Women are more likely to be prescribed pain medications, at higher doses, and stay on them for longer periods of time than men, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
One reason for the higher prescribing rates is that women tend to have more chronic pain, due to conditions such osteoarthritis or fibromyalgia. There is also research that suggests women experience pain more intensely than men.
Women have higher rates of mental health disorders.
Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with co-occurring mental health disorders, including anxiety, mood and eating disorders, research shows. Major depression, for example, is twice as prevalent in women compared to men.
The emotional or psychological distress that accompanies mental illness is linked to drug and alcohol use. Women may try to self-medicate by drinking or using drugs to alleviate anxiety, boost their mood or escape negative feelings. Studies have found that women are more likely to drink alcohol or use prescription opioids to relieve anxiety or stress.
Due to their role in family life, women face significant barriers to getting into addiction treatment.
The stigma around drug and alcohol addiction is a barrier to seeking treatment for men and women alike. But women’s role as mothers, caregivers and in family life may pose an added burden on them.
Women may be afraid to admit to an alcohol or drug problem during pregnancy or when they have young children out of fear of losing custody. Women may not have friends or family available to take care of their children while they’re in treatment, or they may work in jobs that don’t offer medical leave. It’s important for addiction treatment centers to understand these issues, and work with women, their families and employers to work through them.
Women in addiction treatment very likely have suffered trauma.
As many as 80 percent of women who seek treatment for substance use disorders report a history of sexual assault or physical assault, including childhood abuse, rape or domestic violence.
Trauma plays a significant role in women’s addiction. Trauma can leave deep psychological scars, leading people to suffer from stress, depression, anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, anger, fear and shame many years after the abuse or violence occurred.
Helping Women Recover from Addiction
It’s vitally important for addiction treatment providers to recognize the unique issues that women with addiction face, and that programs ensure the needs of women are met.
RiverMend Health Centers of Atlanta and Augusta provides trauma-informed care that takes a compassionate, supportive approach to treatment, and consciously avoids re-traumatizing women during treatment. We offer EMDR, which has been shown to help women overcome the emotional distress of traumatic memories.