Women and Addiction: Distinct Factors Affecting Health, Treatment and Recovery

Women may face more severe addiction-related consequences when compared to men. Certain factors may make addiction more dangerous in women.

Addiction is equally devastating and challenging for both men and women. However, there are notable social and environmental factors that impact substance abuse in women. In addition to biological factors, there are aspects that significantly influence treatment retention and other distinctive gender-based characteristics regarding treatment and ongoing recovery. 

Biological Differences Between Men and Women

While it’s true that men are more likely to develop an addiction to alcohol, women usually suffer more severe damage to the brain and other organs due to chronic alcohol abuse. From a biological standpoint, women develop alcohol-related dependence faster because they generally have more body fat and a lower volume of water in their bodies to dilute alcohol. 

There is a strong association between drinking alcohol and the possibility of developing breast cancer. Studies show that women who consume only one drink per day have a 5% to 9% higher chance of developing breast cancer than women who don’t drink. The risk increases for every additional drink they have per day.

Differences in Adolescence

In addition to evidence that proves alcohol can disrupt normal brain development in adolescence, there may be more severe differences in the way alcohol impacts the brains of young girls. In one study of teen boys and girls who reported binge drinking, teen girls showed less brain activity and worse performance memory tests than peers who drank lightly or did not drink. Even more alarming, in another study of teens who drank heavily, girls showed a greater reduction in the size of important brain areas involved in memory and decision-making than boys. This information reveals the need for more gender-specific research, as it is vital to developing greater awareness and protecting the health of young women and girls. 

Mental Health Disorders, Past Trauma and Women-Specific Factors

Some life circumstances are more prevalent in women as a group and require specialized treatment approaches. Women who experienced sexual abuse in childhood were more likely than women who were not abused to report drug or alcohol dependence as adults. Physical and sexual trauma followed by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is more common in drug-abusing women than in men seeking treatment. Additionally, childhood sexual abuse was associated with substance dependence more than any other psychiatric disorder. 

In addition to trauma, other mental health disorders are more likely to occur with substance abuse in women, such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. A treatment approach that encompasses care for those other health conditions is a component of effective addiction recovery.

Women struggling with addiction also have the possibility of the added complexity of pregnancy. This can negatively affect women remaining in treatment, especially when other mental health disorders are present. These added challenges are important factors that signal the need for specialized attention to maximize the best possible outcomes. It is notable that once a woman has a child, interventions by child protective services and court-mandated treatment have positive outcomes for women maintaining addiction treatment and recovery.

Treatment Approaches in Addiction Recovery

The counselor-client dynamic plays a noteworthy role in predicting post-treatment outcomes. When women and men were asked what qualities were important aspects of their therapeutic relationships and recovery from substance abuse, most women responded with “trust and warmth” while most men answered “a utilitarian problem-solving approach.” Research seems to dictate the effectiveness of a collaborative, supportive approach to treatment for substance abuse that encourages women to use their strengths and increases confidence in abilities to identify and resolve problems. 

Examples that can help reduce a female client’s resistance to change include

  • Creating awareness of the difference between the way her life is and the way she wants it to be
  • Working together to identify what is important to her and how her behavior and coping mechanisms prevent her from reaching her goals
  • Approaching treatment as a collaboration between equal partners, where the therapist is an expert on what helps other people and the client is an expert on what will work for herself

It’s no surprise that women need a treatment environment that is supportive, safe and nurturing. The therapeutic relationship should be one of warmth, mutual respect, empathy and compassion. Approaches based on awareness, trust and understanding are likely to create lasting change. An atmosphere of acceptance, support and hope creates the foundation women need to productively work through challenges.

If you’re looking for treatment for your daughter, granddaughter, mother, sister or another woman in your life, consider programs that comprehend the unique challenges that affect women and addiction. Look for approaches that most effectively address the needs of women in treatment for substance use. For those who struggle with addiction, there is always reason for hope. Know that ongoing maintenance treatments save lives. They provide stability and allow treatment of medical needs, psychological needs and other problems you are dealing with, so you can share the beautiful parts of who you are with your families and communities.


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